It’s normal for us to crack our joints on occasion, from our neck to our knuckles and our toes. Staying in one position for too long, craning your neck to stare at a screen, or sleeping in an off position can all cause your neck to feel stiff and create the urge to crack your neck. This usually causes instant relief and feels good- but is it harmful? Most often, the answer is no, but it usually is a sign that you may have more serious issues at play and should seek treatment for neck injuries.
Why Your Neck “Pops”
There are a number of theories around why your neck makes the audible popping sound when you crack it, and it is likely that multiple explanations are true.
One thought is that the sound comes from ligaments and tendons moving around the bone or over each other. This is most likely to happen if the ligaments, tendons, and muscles are already tight at the time of the movement.
The most common reasoning is a process known as cavitation. This refers to a release of gasses in your joints. All joints contain nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and fluid that lubricates the bones and allows them to move smoothly. When you crack your neck, it stretches out the capsules surrounding your joints, allowing that fluid to stretch out and react to negative pressure. The fluid then turns to gas that forms bubbles. When these bubbles pop, that is the sound you hear- like opening a can of soda.
Cavitation is not dangerous, and it is actually something chiropractors incorporate into their adjustments to relieve pressure. However, it also does not fix any underlying issues. Once you return to normal posture, the same fluid and gasses build up and will need to be released again.
There is also evidence that suggests the relief you feel when your neck cracks is actually a placebo effect brought on by the sound itself. An endorphin release can also reduce pain, making it appear that the cracking was effective.
Arthritis and Cracking Your Joints
One of the most common things people hear when they crack joints is that if they continue, they will develop arthritis. This has been studied primarily in relation to frequent and repeated cracking of the knuckles, and no increased risk has been identified. There is less research on neck cracking, but a causal effect does not seem likely.
However, there may be a strong correlation between people who feel the urge to crack their neck (or other joints) often and people at higher risk for developing osteoarthritis. Inflammation in the joints could cause pain and pressure, or injuries may be at the root of both issues. Very frequent cracking can also cause the ligaments in the joint to permanently stretch, causing a problem known as perpetual instability and increasing your risk for osteoarthritis.
Risks of Cracking Your Neck
While cavitation is not dangerous, cracking your neck too often or too aggressively can have potential consequences. A harsh movement can often lead to a pinched nerve, which is painful and may limit mobility in your neck. Another potential issue can appear if you puncture a blood vessel in the neck or develop a blood clot, ultimately blocking blood flow to the brain.
The real concern with cracking your neck is that you are simply covering up the symptoms of a more insidious condition that requires medical attention. If you feel the constant need to crack your neck and symptoms persist, it is likely that you have a misalignment in your spine or a neck injury that should be treated by a professional. Cracking your neck may offer temporary relief, but it will not address the root cause of your pain and stiffness, which may worsen over time.
Alternatives to Cracking Your Neck
When you feel the urge to crack your neck, there are other less abrasive methods you can use to try and achieve the same feeling of relief. A simple chin tuck – leaning your head all the way forward for 30 seconds at a time – may release pressure and gasses in your neck without the same harsh movements.
You may also notice less of an urge to crack your neck if you work towards improving your general posture. Leaning forward, slouching, or looking down at a screen can place extra pressure on the muscles in your neck, making pain and stiffness worse. Focus on sleeping in a comfortable and neutral position and adjusting your computer to be eye level. A more ergonomic setup will reduce pressure naturally.
When to Seek Chiropractic Care
If you find simple alternatives not working, it likely means there is a misalignment or other more serious problem that should be addressed by a professional. Any neck pain that persists or returns frequently should be evaluated in order to diagnose the root cause and create an adequate treatment plan.
You should also seek care if you feel pain, worsening stiffness, or swelling as a result of cracking your neck. Cavitation usually provides temporary relief, and when it does not, it may be a sign of further damage. If you have experienced a recent injury, accident, or spine-related procedure, it is also important to seek care before attempting to crack your neck on your own.
Many causes of chronic neck pain require medical care, so it is advisable to be cautious and visit a chiropractor as soon as you notice any discomfort. Cracking your neck can be safe in the meantime but is not a replacement for correction of the actual cause of your pain.
If you need chiropractic care or assistance with neck pain and constant neck cracking, AICA Snellville is here to help. Our chiropractors and extended medical staff will work to diagnose your condition and create a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan designed to relieve your pain and eliminate the need to crack your neck going forward. Contact our office today to begin the process!