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.
3 Conditions That Make Your Back Pop, Crack…& Hurt
Sciatica technically isn’t a “diagnosis” and is more a description of a symptom, but it is treatable.
Diagnosis & Treatment
If the pain is traveling down your leg and feels like a bad leg cramp, or a shooting pain that makes standing or sitting nearly impossible, it is likely you have sciatica. Usually we treat this with a combination of physical therapy and injection based medicine. For more info on sciatica check out our blog!
Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal cord in the neck or the spinal nerve roots in the lower back are compressed.
Symptoms & Treatment
Symptoms of lumbar (low back) stenosis often include leg pain and leg tingling,weakness, or numbness. Arm pain is typically a symptom of cervical (upper back) stenosis.
At our office, patients with stenosis have done very well with physical therapy, chiropractic care, anti-inflammatory injections, or spinal decompression therapy.
It’s easy to think of the disk as a jelly donut, with a softer center encased in a tougher exterior.
A disk herniation occurs when some of the softer “jelly” pushes out through a tear in the tougher exterior.
Symptoms & Treatment
Herniated discs are very common. Our patients with this condition often have success with a combination of physical therapy, spinal decompression therapy, injection based medicine, and a couple other non-surgical treatment options.
Book Your Appointment
To get your diagnosis and start living pain free, call us at 908-754-1960 or book your appointment today!
What To Do Next
So if you’d like to find out more information about this, go to our back pain page and there you’ll find a lot of useful information. Here is a quick video that discusses back pain and what can be done to help relieve it (VIDEO).
We hope that you find this information helpful.
And if you have any other questions, don’t be afraid to reach out.
We always say education is power.
Dr. Chris Ingstad, DPT, OCS, MTC, ATC, FAAOMPT
Performance Physical Therapist at Level4 Physio-Wellness-PerformanceDr. Chris Ingstad is a nationally-known Physical Therapist and Co-Founder of Level4 Physio-Wellness-Performance, San Diego’s Leading Specialist Private Physical Therapy and Human Performance Practice for People in their 40’s, 50’s and beyond, who value their health and want to remain active.You might know Dr. Chris as a National Conference presenter on various rehabilitation topics, including on treating people with shoulder, neck and low back injuries. He also teaches at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in the Musculoskeletal track, where he brings clinical practice into the classroom for future physical therapists. He also is published in Jiu Jitsu Magazine and Coastal Newspaper on various areas, including low back and neck and shoulder injuries.
Dr. Chris’ background included working extensively with athletes with shoulder, knee and low back injuries, taking them from post-injury or post-operative to return to sport. He prides himself on the ability to get positive outcomes, even with difficult cases. Level4 Physio-Wellness-Performance is now a large multi-physical therapist specialty practice in Encinitas, CA. In his free time, he enjoys cycling, golfing, hiking/camping, and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
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Why Joints Crack
It’s a commonly held belief that the cracking and popping sounds you hear when you twist and bend your back comes from bubbles popping in your joints. This theory, which was originally introduced in the 1970s, may actually be wrong. Here are the more likely reasons your joints crack:
- Bubbles forming: Rather than the cracking sound coming from bubbling popping, many researchers now believe it’s actually from the formation of bubbles. Greg Kawchuk, the lead author of a 2015 study, says bubbles form as the joint surfaces separate because there’s not enough joint fluid to fill the enlarged space. A gas-filled cavity is created, and that’s what makes the sound you associate with cracking your back.
- Bubbles being released: Putting pressure on a joint could also cause the oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide gases present between joints to release, similar to the release of gases when you open a soda can.
- Negative pressure: Another theory is that when the joint surfaces separate, synovial fluid rushes in to fill the gap. The influx of fluid is what makes the noise and creates a particular sensation when you pop a joint.
- Tendons and ligaments: It’s possible that the “popping” sound you hear isn’t actually a joint popping at all. What you could be hearing is the sound of a tendon quickly snapping over a joint or a ligament tightening quickly when the joint moves. These sounds most often occur in the knee or ankle joints when you stand up from a seated position or walk up and down the stairs.
Is it Dangerous to Pop Your Back?
Sometimes a quick movement here or a twist there will accidentally cause your back or neck to pop. As long as this only happens in moderation, you have nothing to worry about.
However, you should never seek to pop your back or crack your neck in order to relieve pain or stiffness. When you purposefully pop your back too often, you could stretch the ligaments to the point of becoming unstable. This could:
- Impair the ligaments’ ability to stabilize your joints.
- Cause improper spinal alignment.
- Lead to pinched nerves.
- Cause chronic stiffness, irritation and pain.
Besides, when you pop your back in an effort to relieve pain, the joints you end up cracking are those that are already stretched too thin, not the ones that are locked tight and causing you pain. So you’re not really fixing the problem by popping your back.