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Is Cracking Your Neck Bad For You?

is neck pain caused by cracking your neck?

Are you a neck cracker and wondering whether it’s bad for you?

Does your neck hurt when you crack it?

Not sure what neck cracking is?

When we hear the term “cracking your neck," it refers to the popping sound that you hear when people have a stiff neck, so they try to relieve the pressure by making a sharp movement that results in an audible crack and loosens the ligaments and joints in the neck region.

That's why most people do it the first, second, or third time, but for some people, after a while, it becomes an addictive habit that they do multiple times a day – even when their neck isn't stiff. 

It's not just the neck that you can crack, though. You can crack almost all joints in the human body if you want.

Some of the more common joints that people crack are the knuckles, hips, lower back, and ankles.

You've probably seen people cracking all ten knuckles one by one – often when they're anxious or nervous about something and "need something to do with their hands ."

But, after a while, knuckle cracking can become an addictive habit that people repeatedly do without really thinking about it. 

While most people do this by moving their neck or one of the other joints we mentioned, you can also visit a chiropractor and have neck and other joint cracking (adjustment) done professionally.

But interestingly, even for people who enjoy chiropractic adjustments, many people don't like someone else cracking their neck, as it can feel a bit strange to have someone violently move your neck from one side to the other.

Plus, when it's your neck, the crack can appear louder due to the short distance between your neck and your ears. 

In this blog, we examine the process of neck cracking specifically. The inherent risks and when and why chiropractors resort to performing this movement – or as they're sometimes known, “adjustments” - on their patients. 

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What Causes Joints To Crack?

Healthcare and medical concept. Close up woman cracking knuckles

The three primary causes why joints and particularly necks crack are: 

1. Gas:

For the bones and tissues in the body to function smoothly, fluid is present in the joints. This fluid is made up of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and oxygen.

For example, the neck consists of paired joints called facet joints that stretch on either side of the neck.

Every facet is surrounded by a capsule that contains gas and fluid. When you stretch the joint capsule, there is a release of gas as bubbles. It is this escaping gas that makes that cracking or popping sound.

We call it “cavitation” or “boiling." 

2. Movement:

If there is a movement of the joints, it also impacts the ligaments and tendons, which are fibers that link the muscles and bones within the joint.

When the tendon is shifted out of its position, it makes a snapping sound before moving to its original place.

Likewise, when the joints are moved, it causes the ligaments to tighten, resulting in a cracking sound. This is more commonly seen in the knee or ankle joints.

3. Arthritis:

When you suffer from arthritis of the joint, the connected cartilage begins to lose its natural smoothness.

Over time, when the joint's surface becomes coarser, it generates noise or a “crack” when you move it. 

When To See A Doctor

Patient explaining neck problems to senior doctor

If you have discomfort or pain in your neck region, we recommend that you don't intentionally try and crack your neck, as it could be dangerous if you have an underlying injury.

In addition, the neck has lots of blood vessels and nerves that pass through it that suffer damage with continuous cracking.

Instead, try gentle stretching exercises to mobilize the joints, muscles, and tendons inside your neck. 

That's a far safer option. But if you have difficulty moving your neck or have pain, we recommend you seek medical help from a physical therapist.

Also, if you have any weakness, tingling, or numbness in the limbs that accompanies the pain, this is a sign that you need to have your neck examined by a professional.

At Apex Orthopedic Rehabilitation, we can conduct a detailed physical examination to determine the root cause of your neck issues - without cracking. We can also use light pressure and joint manipulation to restore movement, mobility, and flexibility in your neck and the other joints.

What Are The Risks Associated With Neck Cracking? 

pain caused by neck cracking

Neck cracking as a practice is common among chiropractors. They refer to it as cervical spine manipulation or a chiropractic adjustment.

There are varying opinions about the safety of the process, with some deeming it not too risky with low injury rates, while others think there is a certain element of risk involved.

There is also some debate about whether the practice is effective or just a "placebo ."It can be quite individual. Some people love it.

Some people hate it. Plus, if it works for you, it works for you – regardless of the mechanisms involved.

But for this blog, here are some of the risks that have been linked to the practice of neck cracking. They are as follows: 

Stroke:

While there are very few instances, cracking the neck can cause a rupture of the vertebral artery, which carries blood to the brain, and can lead to a stroke. People in the habit of neck cracking are more likely to experience a stroke, with most cases found in those below 60 years of age.  

Blood clotting:

There have been reported cases of neck cracking leading to blood clotting. If this occurs, which is rare, it is dangerous because it can disrupt the supply of oxygen to the brain. 

Osteoarthritis: 

Every time you crack your neck, it puts pressure on the neck joints. Over time when you do it regularly, it causes the neck bones to become unstable and, in the long run, can lead to osteoarthritis.

In this condition, the tissue linked to the bones weakens. It's a painful chronic condition that cannot be reversed – although we can improve the symptoms.

Affects mobility:

Every time you crack your neck, it can damage the spinal connective tissue. In the long term, it can cause arthritis (as we mentioned), but it can also affect your mobility. 

Risk factor: 

The older we get, the greater the risk of developing complications through the practice of neck cracking.

You have stronger neck muscles, bones, and ligaments when you're young, so cracking your neck is comparatively safe.

However, as we age, the blood vessels begin to shrink and get tighter, which increases the risk of bursting an artery.

An additional risk for older people is they can fracture their bones more easily through forceful and swift motions – like neck cracking. 

Overall, what are the benefits of neck cracking?

chiropractic neck cracking

Neck cracking is a common practice amongst chiropractors, and many people report benefits from regular chiropractic adjustments, but the jury is still out.

Overall, there is a low risk of complications like nerve damage, a fracture, or vascular injury, especially in younger patients with healthy muscles, ligaments, and bones.

Plus, some people swear by regular adjustments and cite chiropractic treatment as transforming their health and/or physical performance. 

But one of the more helpful movements that are a bit like neck cracking is neck manipulation, which we accomplish with more gentle stretching and massage to realign the joints, muscles, and ligaments.

This physical therapy technique helps in improving spinal posture and alleviates pain. We believe that spinal manipulation with a physical therapist is much more effective than other treatments, like chiropractic adjustments or just cracking your neck. 

Hands-on physical therapy and neck manipulation can be helpful for:

  • Chronic neck pain
  • Painful joint conditions 
  • Pain in the lower back
  • Migraines

You may also like to try some foam rolling or self-myofascial release techniques to release some of the tight muscles around your neck, shoulders, and lower back.

We can show you how. Spinal manipulation and physical therapy can be hugely beneficial if you suffer from chronic neck pain.

But you might also like to make some changes to your lifestyle for maximum results and a reduction in neck pain and stiffness, like:

  • Avoiding carrying heavy loads on your back or shoulder (i.e., backpacks) 
  • Using hot/cold packs to relieve pain and swelling 
  • Getting a regular sports massage
  • Adopting a more comfortable sleep position or getting a back-friendly mattress
  • Doing neck strengthening movements along with gentle stretches.
Tom Willemann

Tom Willemann

Tom Willemann is a premier physical therapist based out of Bergen County, New Jersey. He holds an MS in physical therapy from the University of Miami, is credentialed in the world-renowned McKenzie Method of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy (MDT), and holds an OCS (Orthopedic Clinical Specialist) certification. As of 2018, there are approximately 14,000 ABPTS certified specialists in the nation and less than 400 of them are located in the state of New Jersey. Tom is the owner and director of Apex Orthopedic Rehabilitation in Paramus. He opened the clinic, which specializes in spine and sports injury prevention, in 2004 after many years of experience in the field. Tom’s caring interest in others and his strong belief in continuity of care, combined with his clinic’s ability to find solutions for the most difficult orthopedic problems, have earned Apex Orthopedic Rehabilitation its excellent reputation with patients and medical professionals in northeastern New Jersey and beyond. A true “family man,” Tom takes pride in his clinic’s warm and welcoming environment.
Tom Willemann

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