Is it Safe?
There is no conclusive research that would lead us to come down hard on this question. So in order to understand the relationship between joint popping and joint health we should take a closer look at what a spinal manipulation accomplishes. A spinal manipulation is meant to firstly increase the range of motion of a joint. For instance, if you find that you can turn your head farther the right than the left, a spinal manipulation would likely help the joint recover that extra mobility on the left side. Aside from increasing range of motion spinal manipulations can often relieve pain and even improve muscle relaxation for an individual. It is important to note that the popping/cracking noise that you hear during a spinal manipulation is merely a byproduct of the manipulation and not the goal of the adjustment. It is a result of the pulling apart of a joint that creates a negative pressure.
There are two situation that Dr. O’Guin outlines.
One is the habitual-cracker, an individual who is constantly cracking and popping a specific joint with only temporary relief (if that). This is likely a sign of instability in the joint and continuing to pop it could likely make the problem worse. The key to relief in this situation is strengthening the joint and in turn re-stabilizing it.
The second situation that is discussed is an individual who occasionally stretches the muscles surrounding a joint and unintentionally pops the joint. This is deemed safe and beneficial. The benefits to this type of self adjustment include improved mobility, pain relief, muscle relaxation (sound familiar).
Moral of the story? Light stretching is encouraged but leave the popping to the professionals.
How to Stop Popping Your Neck
Just as with any addictive behavior, the first step is to admit you have a problem. As melodramatic as it sounds that is exactly what it boils down to. The constant cracking becomes such a normal part of your day that you don’t even notice you do it. As we’ve established, this bad habit weakens ligaments and leads to instability in the joint. So how do you stop? Start by consciously making the decision to stop. This simple decision primes your brain to recognize when you do it; a behavior that has gone unnoticed and unchecked for possibly years will suddenly be recognizable to you. At first this may be frustrating because you will remember that you wanted to stop cracking your neck after you have already done it. But stick with it because eventually you will recognize the urge before the behavior. Resisting the urge is the hardest part of this process but stay strong! Distracting yourself is a great way to keep that pesky compulsion at bay, so read a book, or do some yoga, anything to keep your mind off of cracking. This will be very difficult at first but eventually the impulses go away altogether, usually within the first three to four days they decrease and if you can make it two weeks you are home-free.
What to do instead…
Successfully ditching this habit is a feat in itself but if you want to be an overachiever, then why not replace that bad habit with some good ones: stretching and strengthening.
Dr. O’Guin first runs through a simple stretch to alleviate the muscle that oftentimes causes the sort of discomfort mentioned in the first video. Start with your arm tucked behind your back pulling your shoulder down and back, away from the ear. Then tilt the head slightly back and to the side, lifting the chin up and away from the shoulder. Hold for a few seconds and repeat on the other side.
Although the stretching might feel good and may offer temporary relief it rarely addresses the underlying issue which is often instability in the joint. So it is important to implement strengthening along with stretching to ensure long term relief. Our resting posture plays a large role in neck and back discomfort so it’s a good idea to start there. Many times the head is shifted too far forward which causes tension in the back of the neck and weakness in the front. So step one of strengthening is to first get into the correct postural position; you can do this by pulling the head back so that the ear is directly above the shoulder and tucking the chin. Then simply apply force to different sides of your head (i.e. front, back, left, right) and resist movement in your neck by maintaining that correct posture that you started in. This simple strengthening technique is easy enough to do in the car on your way to work (pushing against the headrest) or while you are watching tv at home so adding it into your daily routine should be seamless.