December 12, 2023

What happens when you crack your neck?

There is no conclusive research that would lead us to come down hard on this question.

What happens when you crack your neck?

The cracking noise associated with cracking your neck comes from within the small joints (facet joints) in the back of the spine. When space is created in joints, synovial fluid (joint lubricant) expands, creating a gas bubble called cavitation. Contrary to what many people think, bones are not being moved in or out of place. In some instances, cracking your own neck is not problematic, and it might even feel good. However, the desire or habit of frequent neck cracking is a cause for concern.

Is it safe to pop/adjust your own neck? 

In most instances, there is no immediate severe harm being done by cracking your own neck. There is a risk of a joint sprain if an attempt to pop your neck is too aggressive or at a wrong angle. However, if your neck sometimes pops on its own with gentle stretches, you are unlikely to do any damage.

Habitual neck cracking can become an issue because it ultimately weakens the integrity of the spine. Chiropractors use spinal manipulation to reset internal joint structures and improve the range of motion in people whose joints are very stiff and restricted. If someone can easily or repeatedly crack their own neck, it may mean that their joints are too loose (hypermobile). In these instances, continuously popping your neck causes the ligaments to become weaker, leading to more instability. With hypermobility, a better long-term approach would be rehabilitation and strengthening.

Why does it feel like I need to pop my neck?

For some people, feeling like your neck needs to be cracked is your body telling you that you need a chiropractic adjustment by a chiropractor. Sometimes internal structures (synovial folds) within spine joints become stuck or restricted. Also, adjustments to the spine help reduce muscle tension in the area. Therefore, if you have trigger points or tight muscles, you may feel like your neck needs to be adjusted. In these cases, it's usually hard to crack your own neck, and seeing a chiropractor may be necessary. Ideally, after a few sessions of chiropractic treatment, the sensation of feeling like your neck needs to be popped will subside.

If the desire to crack your neck is chronic or quickly returns after an adjustment, it may indicate a lack of stability or coordination of the deep neck muscles. When the muscles aren't protecting the spine and joints, it leads to a sensation of feeling "out of alignment." In these instances, an adjustment can be valuable. However, the best long-term solution is physical therapy or rehabilitation consisting of strengthening and improving muscle coordination in the neck, shoulders, and core.

Why does it feel good to pop my neck?

There is a Traditional Chinese Medicine saying, "where there is no movement, there is pain; where there is movement, there is no pain." Massaging and stretching, in general, usually stimulate specific nerve receptors that provide relief. Popping joints provide an intense stimulation of those nerve receptors that help release endorphins and serotonin. Finally, in some instances, internal structures within the joints of the spine get stuck. Popping your neck can sometimes help release those entrapments, allowing for more mobility with less pain. 

Even though the popping is not dangerous and gives temporary relief, I recommend breaking the habit. Neck popping done too frequently can cause the ligament to get weaker, which leads to more issues later down the road. 

How can I stop popping my neck?

Frequent neck popping is usually done without conscious awareness, similar to nail biting or hair twirling. The first strategy is to become aware of the bad habit and make a conscious effort to stop it. At first, it might not be easy because you may catch yourself after you have already adjusted your neck. That's okay. Within a day or two, you will become aware of the sensation. Next, the goal is to resist the temptation to crack your neck once you're aware. The good news is that the urge will usually pass within a few minutes, especially if you find something else to occupy your mind. After a few days of discipline, the desire to pop your own neck will become less and less. Usually, within 1-2 weeks, you will no longer have those urges.

What to do instead of popping your neck

Habitual neck popping is most frequent in people who have joints that are too loose and unstable or have decreased body awareness. Either way, the goal is to strengthen the muscles and ligaments in your neck. 

Some simple exercises are isometric contractions of your neck muscles in all directions. See the illustration below. In the first neck exercise, sit tall with your head over your shoulders and chin tucked down. Next, use your fingers to press your head back, as if you're trying to force your chin to raise. Find the perfect amount of force so that you're able to keep your head upright and your chin down, but you can tell you're using about 50% effort. Hold for about 10 seconds, then take a 10-second rest. If time is limited, do this for just one set. You could do up to 3-5 sets if you have time

The second exercise is pushing in the opposite direction. Sit tall again; however, this time, place your hands behind your head and attempt to push your head forward. Now, use your neck muscles to resist. You can also sit upright against a wall and press the back of your head into a wall. Use the same instructions above for 10-second holds and between 1-5 sets. 

In the final exercise, you will resist side bending of the neck. For this, place your hand on the side of your head and attempt to press your head sideways. Again, use your neck muscles to resist for 10-seconds at about 50% effort and repeat 1-5 sets.

Please note that these are fundamental and safe exercises. However, you may wish to consult with a spine health specialist, chiropractor, or physical therapist for individualized exercises. There is not one single exercise that can fix chronic neck pain or holistically strengthen your neck. A comprehensive approach, focusing on your specific issue, posture, and muscle imbalances, is essential for the best results. 

For more information on our approach to chiropractic care, rehabilitation, and treatment for neck pain, visit us at chiropractor St. Louis.



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