Written by Kim O’Brien Root
Ever have a stiff neck?
Say you’ve been working at your computer for quite a while, so you roll your head around until you hear a soft pop in your neck. Your neck feels a bit better, so you get back to work.
A few hours later, you do the same. Ah, your neck feels better.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. The simple act of popping, or cracking, your neck, knuckles, or even toes can bring about instant relief for a stiff joint. But is it safe?
Well, not really, says Dr. Robert Pinto, a chiropractor with Pinto Chiropractic & Rehabilitation in Williamsburg, Va. Cracking one’s neck, if done too often and without knowing the proper way to move the joint around, can cause serious problems, including stroke.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you actually stand a chance of hurting yourself,” Pinto says.
Think about the neck. There are a whole lot of important body structures contained in one small area – spinal cord, lower brain stem, arteries, blood vessels, ligaments, nerves, bones, joints and muscles. Twisting and turning your neck around could put those delicate body parts at risk. Any one of them could twist, knot up or be permanently damaged, including the arteries that bring blood directly to you brain.
So what happens when you crack your neck?
What you’re hearing is a phenomenon called cavitation. It’s the act of putting negative pressure on a liquid, which creates tiny gas bubbles. Like what happens when you open a can of soda.
Joints contain oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide gasses as well as fluid that lubricates the bones. There’s also negative pressure in the joint. If you introduce a gas bubble in the joint, you can move it significantly further than normal, Pinto says.
Chiropractors use cavitation to free up joints and make them work better than they were working previously. They are trained to learn the best way to do so, and know how to feel for a joint that needs help.
“It’s the art of knowing which one it is, and knowing how to move it so you have a positive outcome,” Pinto says.
The danger in too much self-manipulation of your own joints is over-stretching the ligaments. Much like a rubber band, if you stretch a ligament too much, it can lose its shape – and strength. If you stretch your ligaments too much by cracking your neck or back, they might not be able to provide the stability your joints need to maintain proper alignment. That can lead to problems such as pain, stiffness and even pinched nerves and misaligned vertebra.
It’s different if you crack your knuckles. There aren’t nearly as many delicate parts in your hands. Some studies have shown that repeated cracking of knuckles can actually make them healthier.
But not the neck.
So what should you do if you get a lot of neck stiffness and have an overwhelming urge to crack it? It does get addictive – after all, there are endorphins released every time. But while it feels good for a minute, it doesn’t really help in the long run. It’s just the symptom you’re relieving – not the actual problem.
That’s when it’s time to call a chiropractor, who will do a thorough examination and determine the best treatment plan. Pinto, for example, has been successful in not only treating neck stiffness, but also addressing what makes people self-manipulate.
“It takes a lot of self-control,” Pinto says.
“It feels so good, how bad can it be?”
Some of the people who come into my office for care used to be serial neck poppers. Emphasis on the words “used to be”. One of my first recommendations for people when they get their first adjustment is to avoid popping or cracking their neck. There’s usually a look of defeat on their face when I give them that recommendation. But the truth is that one of their greatest sources of relief from neck discomfort was actually the very thing that was making their problem a chronic issue.
The x-ray on the right is an example of someone who spends a lot of time popping their own neck. He had no history of a car accident, sports injury, fall, or trauma. However, he has been popping his neck aka, self-manipulating multiple times per day for years.
The green line represents the center point where a person’s head and neck should line up. The red line represents how the patient’s head and neck currently line up in their “normal” seated position.
The level of displacement is not hard to see. In fact, most of you would probably notice someone like this who always holds their neck off to the side.
Though he always feels his neck is very tight, the neck tends to be very floppy without a strong degree of stability. Even after several corrections, his neck will continue to have a tendency to slip towards the side until the ligaments tighten up and heal.
So what exactly happens when you self-manipulate?
Despite popular belief, there is nothing insidious about the popping sound made by joints. The classic crunching sound that you hear, and is stereotyped with chiropractic has nothing to do with broken bones, or rubbing bones against each other. The sound comes from tiny gas bubbles within the fluid that lubricates your joints. When the joint opens up rapidly, these bubbles get released and pop causing those sounds.
It’s more like opening a can of soda than the crunching of a bone. If your neck or back cracks here and there with normal movement, it’s not a cause for concern most of the time.
The sound is ultimately not the problem. What truly is a problem is the way the thrust affects the spine.
In recent years, there have been videos, articles, and books that teach people how to adjust themselves. Now bear in mind, the neck is one of the most sensitive and important pieces of anatomy in the human body. So people are being taught to manipulate their neck without regard for the following factors:
1. Risk factors – Does your neck have disc bulges or protrusions? Are there plaques or anatomical malformations? Some of these risk factors are susceptible to rotation/twisting forces in the neck. Many of these problems can be identified and planned for with a proper examination, but without one, how do you know?
2. What is the current structure of the spine? – How is the spine currently aligned? Do you know which direction puts you into a better position? Are you moving the right vertebra? Are you pushing the vertebra into a worse position than it already is?
In my office, we use very precise, laser aligned x-rays to identify these malpositions in millimeters. Can your own hands do the same?
3. Constant Manipulation = Loose ligaments = Poor Stability – Every time you manipulate your spine, you are causing ligaments in the spine to stretch like a rubber band. When you stretch a rubber band enough times, it eventually loses it’s shape and becomes less stable. Your ligaments work the same way. If you keep pounding on your neck with self-manipulation, your neck eventually becomes a sloppy mess like the x-ray above.
When people have ligament instability, it leads them down the road where they depend on manipulation to keep feeling good. Not a good situation, and a big reason chiropractors get a bad rap for getting people “addicted to adjustments”.
Can You Safely Crack Your Back?
Yes! Using the proper technique infrequently will keep your back strong and, hopefully, help relieve some of the pressure you may be feeling. However, please see your Littleton chiropractor first to be sure that your method of choosing is safe for your back, and only opt for these methods when needed:
- Standing – In order to crack your back while standing, place both of your hands palm-out in the center of your back. Have them overlap one another. Then, lean back slowly while pressing against your spine to feel it crack.
- Laying Down – Lay down on the floor and pull one knee up to your chest. Slowly let it turn across your body while keeping your shoulders on the floor. This natural twist should help you relieve some pressure
- Sitting in a Chair – Sit up straight with your back pressed against the back of the chair. Apply light pressure to your forehead and breathe deeply to allow your back to crack naturally.