All of us have done it at some point in our lives and heard those cracking sounds − cracking your joints is a very common habit.
The joints that get cracked the most are our knuckles, fingers, and toes.
Some of us do it to release the pressure that has built up, while others do it out of pure habit.
The term "cracking" refers to the popping sound that occurs when the joint and ligaments of the joint are loosened and let out a release of oxygen.
Any joint can be cracked, and that includes the joints in your cervical spine, or neck.
What Causes My Neck to Crack?
One of the most common causes of neck cracking is cavitation.
That essentially boils down to gas bubbles in the synovial fluid escaping a tight space. The fluid is a lubricant similar to the grease that is applied to metal gears so that they operate smoothly and without friction.
The fluid is formed by a combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and oxygen, and it is found in our joints.
Think of the joints in your cervical spine as capsules.
When they bubble up with oxygen molecules, they are somewhat constrained with regard to the range of motion.
When these bubbles are released by the deliberate rolling motion of our necks, they make a series of cracking sounds that may sound like popping.
Let's break it down even more.
There are three main factors that cause the joints in your cervical spine to crack.
1. Escaping Gas
Just like we discussed, our joints contain fluid that helps our bones and tissues move together smoothly.
The fluid is made up of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.
In your cervical spine, there are paired joints known as facet joints that run up and down each side.
Each of the facet joints has a capsule around it filled with fluid and gas.
When we stretch the joint capsule by rolling our necks, and our neck cracks, the gas is rapidly released in the form of gas bubbles.
That's what makes the popping sound.
This process is also known as boiling or cavitation. Learn more about that by clicking here.
When our joints move, it affects the tendons and ligaments, which are the fibers that connect our bones and muscles in the joint.
If a tendon is moved slightly out of place, it may make a snapping or cracking noise when it returns to its proper position.
The ligaments can also tighten when the joint is moved and make a cracking sound.
When joints are affected by arthritis, the cartilage typically loses its smoothness.
As the joint slowly becomes rougher, it can make a noise, or cracking sound, when it moves.
Are There Benefits to Neck Cracking?
There are a few ways that cracking your neck joints may benefit you, but you should always talk to your chiropractor beforehand.
They'll advise you on whether or not it's safe for you, and can recommend any other options for relief that might be available.
Sometimes just hearing the cracking sound creates a placebo effect.
Even if no pressure was released and the joint wasn't completely or successfully adjusted, it still makes the patient feel better.
Cracking your neck also releases endorphins in your neck.
Endorphins are produced by your pituitary gland and are released by your body to help with pain management.
Are There Risks to Cracking My Neck?
Is a cracking neck dangerous? Cracking your neck can be very risky (if done incorrectly).
If it's done incorrectly or too often, it may be very harmful to your neck.
Cracking your neck with too much force can pinch the nerves in your neck, causing a great deal of pain and making it difficult or near impossible to move.
Cracking your neck too hard can also strain the muscles around your joints and the joints themselves.
When this happens, the simple act of moving your neck may feel like a chore.
Sometimes the need to crack your neck may be a result of hypermobility.
Hypermobility is when your joint has a larger range of motion than normal.
When you crack your neck a lot, the ligaments in your joints can get permanently stretched.
This is known as perpetual instability.
With perpetual instability, your neck joints are at a greater risk of developing osteoarthritis.
In some cases, cracking your neck too hard or too often can puncture one of the many blood vessels found in your neck.
It can also cause blood clotting, which is extremely dangerous because it blocks the flow of blood to your brain.
How Do I Stop My Neck From Cracking?
The first thing you can do to stop your neck from cracking is to stretch your neck muscles.
Tight neck muscles are why most people try to crack their neck in order to reduce the tension and discomfort they feel.
Instead of trying to constantly release the joints of your cervical spine, you should gently stretch your neck muscles, which may alleviate your neck issue and eliminate the urge to crack it.
Use slow, steady movements and take deep breaths during your stretches. In general, you should hold stretches for about 30 seconds and repeat 3-5x daily.
You should also mobilize your neck in all directions. If your neck is stiff and has a poor range of motion, the problem is likely more joint-related.
In this case, trying to unjam your neck joints is certainly warranted, but typically the stiffest joints don't release with self-manipulation.
Instead, the joints above and below the stiffest joint keep cracking, which may make them a little too loose and unstable over time. Instead of trying to crack them yourself, you should see a chiropractor for an adjustment.
Strengthen your neck muscles for stability. Muscles are not only for movement, but they are also important for providing protection and stability.
Weak neck muscles increase the amount of instability in the cervical spine. Consequently, strengthening the cervical muscles may diminish the desire to crack them.
When Is Neck Cracking a Concern?
There are a few instances when neck cracking should be a definite cause for concern.
Along with the release of gas bubbles, cracking or grinding in the neck can also be caused by dysfunction or damage in your cervical joint.
The damage can be caused by an injury or by degeneration over years of wear and tear.
Fortunately, there are some warning signs to look out for that will indicate that your neck cracking is more than just the release of bubbles.
- When cracking repeats every time you move a certain way
- When cracking is accompanied by pain or swelling
- When cracking develops after an accident or surgery that affects the cervical spine
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your chiropractor to have them properly diagnosed.
It's better to be safe than sorry, but for the most part, neck cracking is harmless.
Fix Your Neck Pains with the Chiropractors at Arrowhead Clinic!
If you crack your neck regularly without any pain or discomfort, it's unlikely you will need chiropractic care.
However, if you do feel pain, or you never feel satisfied after you crack your neck, you might need to get your joints realigned.
You should also consider seeing a chiropractor if:
- You notice unusual swelling in your cervical spine
- You feel pain in the joints of your cervical spine
- Your joints become less mobile
Your chiropractor will manipulate your joints to be sure they're aligned, thus preventing the feeling of pressure or pain that makes you want to crack your neck.
They can also provide advice on lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise, that will help minimize pressure and pain.
Even tips for home remedies, like heating and cooling, can be suggested by your chiropractor.
When it's done right, cracking of the neck can make you feel good by releasing built-up pressure in your joints.
If you do it a lot and experience pain, you should visit your chiropractor to be sure there are no underlying issues.
They can also tell you how to do it the right way to prevent any long term damage.
If you are experiencing neck pain after you roll it or crack it, and you don't have a chiropractor, the doctors at the Arrowhead Clinic can get you taken care of.
They have years of experience and expertise in chiropractic care, and they will make sure your neck is healthy, and they will work until you don't have anymore neck pain.
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