You have been sitting for a long time and feel tension in your neck and shoulders. You stretch your back, tilt your head from side to side, and hear a popping sound. You feel less tension in your muscles, but you wonder why you have neck cracking, why it feels good to crack your neck, and if it is a sign of an underlying condition.
When Your Joints Make a Lot of Noise
Crepitus, is the term used for joint cracking and there are several reasons why your joints make a cracking, popping, grinding, snapping, or knocking sound.
Three of the Main Reasons Are:
1) Boiling or cavitation: The rapid release of gas in the form of bubbles from the facet joints or paired joints. In our joints, there is a fluid made up of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. These gases help with the movement of your bones and tissues. The neck has facet joints along each side of your neck. This is why to stretch our neck muscles we tend to tilt our head to the left and to the right. These joints are filled with fluid and gas. When these joints are stretched, the gas is released causing a popping or cracking sound to be heard.
2) Movement: The tightening and snapping of ligaments and tendons. The tendons and ligaments; fibers that that connect the bones to the muscles in the joint; are also impacted by the joint’s movement. A popping or snapping sound can be heard, if the tendon moved slightly out of position and is snapping back to its original position or when the ligament tightens as the joint moves, causing a snapping or popping sound to be heard.
3) Arthritis: In simplest terms, it is a way to refer to joint pain and disease. Arthritis affects the joints and causes the joints surface to be rough. Movement of the joint can seem noisy with constant cracking, grinding, or popping sounds.
What Is Neck Cracking?
Joint cracking or crepitus is normal and isn’t known to cause any long-term damage to your joints. It is also not a factor in the development of arthritis. However, if your neck always cracks when you move a certain way, or you feel pain or swelling immediately after cracking your neck; then you should see a doctor to ensure that there was damage to your cervical joint. Gently tilting your head from side to side to stretch the muscles and hearing a soft cracking sound, is very different than the practice of quickly snapping the neck to relieve tension and provide pain relief.
When pressure is applied, a loud popping sound can be heard. The practice of applying pressure to your neck to produce a loud popping sound is not recommended as an at-home remedy. It should also not be performed by anyone who is not a trained medical professional. Even with a trained professional the risk of a vascular injury, a fracture, or to sustain nerve damage; can occur.
The Cause for All the Concern
Thousands of people visit a chiropractor for neck cracking, but recent studies show a link between cervical manipulation and neurovascular injury. This means that the process of neck cracking can tear the vertebral artery in your neck. The vertebral artery transports blood to your brain and damage to this artery can lead to the patient having a stroke. While serious side effects and complications are rare, the number of patients experiencing adverse side-effects has been enough to raise concerns and alert medical professional of the need for alternative and effective options.
The Importance of a Trained and Ethical Chiropractor
The risk of experiencing a negative side effect is low, but they can occur. Each of these risks carries significant long-term and even permanent health issues. The chiropractor you chose should provide you with a consultation, answer your questions, and successfully address all of your concerns. Many chiropractors offer these services to maintain and grow their business, even when it is not needed by the patient. All chiropractors are required to discuss the specifics of the treatment, the risk factors, and the alternative options; before getting consent from you to perform a cervical spine manipulation.
Neck cracking by a chiropractor is known as cervical spine manipulation and is a commonly used method to relieve pain, increase mobility, and as a treatment for migraines and headaches. This usually includes adjustments and manipulations to shift the vertebrae back into alignment through pressure, massages, and thrusts over the restricted joints. While joint cracking or crepitus is relatively safe, it is important to remember that there are several nerves and blood vessels that run through the neck; including the vertebral artery.
Even when neck cracking is done by a trained professional, there is a small risk for serious complications and long-term hearth issues leading many chiropractic’s to urge patients to seek alternative treatments and lifestyle choices. Many medical professionals believe there just isn’t enough research to know definitively whether or not the benefits outweigh the concerns.
Is Neck Cracking Good for You?
Cracking your neck can feel really good and give you a feeling of satisfaction. That is because when you crack your neck endorphins are released into your body. Endorphins give you a feeling of pleasure and their release can be triggered by the cracking of your neck. Even the sound of cracking can lead to positive mental effects because it is associated with a release of pressure, stress, and tension.
Neck cracking has been used to relieve pain and is one of the most commonly used practices by chiropractors to manage pain relief for those who suffer from:
Those in favor of the practice argue that neck cracking is a safer alternative to the use of drugs to manage pain.
The Surprising Impact Neck Cracking Can Have on Your Health
The health concerns surrounding neck cracking focus primarily on the damage that could be caused to the nerves and blood vessels that run through the neck. This includes the tearing of the vertebral artery that could lead to a stroke.
Tearing the Vertebral Artery and Blood Clotting
Tearing the vertebral artery and blood clotting are two risks that could cause a stroke. Strokes occur when the blood supply to your brain is blocked, depriving your brain of essential nutrient and oxygen. It is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and survivors could suffer from permanent brain damage. The risk of having a stroke increases if you routinely have your neck cracked or have a habit of cracking your neck and are under the age of 60.
The Development of Osteoarthritis
Pressure is placed on the joints when you crack your neck, which in rare cases leads to an increase in pain. If the pressure leads to a weakening of the tissue at the ends of the bones, then you could develop a painful and permanent condition, known as osteoarthritis.
Every time your neck is cracked the connective tissue in the spine could be damaged. This damage may go unnoticed for years, but over time the damage could reduce your mobility and could lead to arthritis.
A lack of research is the number one reason there are some medical professions believe the method of neck cracking is effective, while there are many others who believe the practice should be ended. Regardless, it is important to speak with your chiropractor, because there are different methods and alternative that require less pressure on the joints; reducing the risks.
Seek information on lifestyle change, if you suffer from joint pain or have weak muscles, ligaments, and lack bone strength. Bone strength is very important, because people who have weak bones may suffer from fractures, because of the quick and forceful motion associated with neck cracking. Age is another factor. As we age our bones and muscles weaken, so neck cracking may not be the best option. Alternatives such as:
Having a healthy diet and regular exercise go a long way to alleviating many of the symptoms that lead to going to a chiropractic for pain relief. This includes reducing your stress levels and trying to avoid sitting in awkward or uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. Even though the risks are reduced if you are younger and overall healthy, they increase exponentially if neck cracking becomes a habit and it makes finding alternatives in the future, when necking cracking is no longer a viable option, more challenging. In the end, the question of whether the benefits outweigh the risks is a question only you can answer.