Many people are concerned that cracking their backs and necks will lead to painful conditions like arthritis. Others consider cracking a normal part of maintenance; after all, chiropractors help people with back pain by cracking their backs with manipulation techniques. Is it safe to crack your back and neck?
The answer to this depends on the method and frequency of cracking. First, consider what happens when you crack a joint. The bones of the joint move apart, which creates a temporary vacuum (since more volume equals less pressure). Gases that have dissolved in the joint’s protective fluids undergo a reconstitution of sorts when volume decreases; the dissolved gases now form into bubbles. The pop you hear is the sound of these bubbles popping as pressure drops even lower.
Cracking the back and neck often feels good because it involves stretching joints, ligaments and muscles. If you hear your joints crack when you stretch, this is generally nothing to be concerned about. When cracking becomes excessive, such as when a person habitually and forcibly cracks his or her back and neck multiple times a day, hypermobility becomes a concern.
Hypermobility occurs when the ligaments surrounding a joint become overstretched. The ligaments fail to support the joint and the joint is susceptible to excess range of motion. Though cracking knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis, the extra wear and tear hypermobile spinal joints are subjected to can likely increase your risk of non-rheumatoid arthritis if you crack your spine habitually. Joints that crack regularly without much prompting may be a symptom of hypermobility.
Another problem that occurs with hypermobility is tight muscles. Muscles surrounding lax ligaments tense up to protect and support the area, compensating for the ligaments. This muscular tension increases your perceived need to crack your back and neck, and so the cycle continues.
Neck cracking comes with a unique risk: stroke. The vertebrobasiliar artery runs the length of the cervical spine and is most vulnerable at the top of the spine, where it loops into and out of the vertebra (C1). This artery provides nutrients and oxygen to parts of the brain that facilitate many functions, including vision, balance and consciousness. Cracking the neck forcibly changes the position of the vertebra and can condense the artery enough to cause a tear. Blood clots can pass along to the brain or block the flow of blood to it resulting in possible stroke and death. The risk is present for both self adjustments and chiropractic manipulations. See http://www.webmd.com/stroke/news/20030512/neck-cracking-raises-stroke-risk for more on this.
Is cracking your back and neck safe? Cracking that occurs when stretching is often safe, but if it happens with very little effort it may be a sign of hypermobility. Excessive intentional cracking may cause hypermobility of ligaments and joints coupled with tense muscles. Joint wear can accelerate if you crack your spine constantly. Finally, cracking your neck comes with a rare but serious risk of stroke. If you experience pain when cracking a joint, this could be the sign of a joint problem and deserves medical attention.
There are many myths surrounding back cracking. Keeping yourself informed will help you know which actions are healthy and which are harmful.