To Crack or Not To Crack? That is the Question

I get asked all the time if “self-cracking” is ok to do. Or if it’s the same thing as getting adjusted by a chiropractor. I even have patients (and a brother) who get up off the adjusting table and wrench and twist their neck to get it to pop right in front of me! Ugh! Today I am going to give you the lowdown on why “popping” your own neck and back is NOT a good idea.

First, let’s talk about joint anatomy and what the popping noise really is. A joint is made up of bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles, cartilage, and synovial fluid. The joint capsule encloses the joint and keeps the fluid in and protects the joint. Check out the picture to get a better understanding. Keep in mind that in the spine, a vertebral disc would also be in between the vertebrae as well.  The “popping” noise we often hear is due to gases like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide that are contained in the synovial fluid. When you pop or crack a joint, you stretch the joint capsule, which changes the pressure in the in capsule, allowing the gases to be rapidly released and bubbles to form.  Other noises you may hear are snapping noises, which could be the result of a tendon’s position changing. Ligaments can also tighten when you change position, as what often happens in your knee or ankle. There could also be a bone-on-bone scraping or clicking noise, which is very different.

Now tell me if this sounds like you: You’re under a lot of stress and your neck feels tight. This morning you drove all over town meeting with clients. You were late for a meeting and the client left before you could get there. Now you’re back at the office staring at your computer screen. You’re stressed out because your computer keeps freezing up and you can’t get anything done. Your neck feels like it’s in a vice. Without giving it much thought you put one hand on the back of your head, cup your chin in the palm of the other hand, and twist sharply. Your neck pops like bubble wrap. You twist in the other directions, hearing and feeling another series of cracks. Finally, some relief. But soon the stress mounts again, tension builds, and you find yourself twisting your neck again. Each time the results are less satisfying. By the end of the day you feel like you’ve been through the ringer, and so does your neck.

Does this sound like you? Maybe you have a similar version where you twist until your low back pops, or have your child walk on your back, or lean backwards over the counter until you hear snap, crackle, pop. Whatever the scenario, it all leads to the same place, and it’s not good. Here is what I tell patients in my office. If you happen to move, turn, or bend and you hear a “pop”, it’s no big deal. If that pop is accompanied by pain, you should get it checked out. However, if you feel the need to pop things yourself, especially daily or multiple times a day, due to pain, discomfort or tightness, then it is time to get the problem fixed and stop making it worse by cracking it on your own.

When we are stressed out, have tense muscles, or vertebrae out of alignment, our body naturally wants to correct itself and be in the right place again. When you self-crack a tight spot, you are essentially trying to loosen up that area. That doesn’t sound so bad, huh? Well, when done repeatedly, that joint tends to become hypermobile, which means there is too much motion there. That may sound counterintuitive, because the whole reason you are popping it is because it feels tight. But when you constantly loosen the area around the joint, the muscles, tendons and ligaments that surround and stabilize the joint have to keep tightening up to keep the area stable. The message to your body is that something feels “loose”. So, after a while the tissues called in to stabilize the joint start to feel tense themselves because they are being asked to work harder than they should be. So the next message your body gets is “Ouch!”  You decide to “release” the pressure by popping the joint yourself. For a while, you might feel really good. But once your body gets the “loose” message again, it starts all over.

As time goes on, you get less relief and the effects of the popping last for shorter periods of time. You may have to do it more often, or stretch the spine farther to get the same results. Each time you do it, you are stretching the ligaments even farther, which weakens the joint capsule even more and sets you up for serious injury. There is also an increased risk for degeneration due to the increased wear and tear. It’s kind of like being addicted to smoking. You do it at first, it feels good, you think you can handle it. Pretty soon you need more and more, and next thing you know you’re a pack a day cracker. And you are still not addressing the real cause of the problem!

As you overstretch the spine, you can cause microtraumas, tears, and damage to surrounding tissues, including arteries and nerves. You are not trained in anatomy and physiology and probably aren’t aware of everything that could be injured. Chronic self-cracking can lead to loss of elasticity in the ligaments, which causes the muscles to work harder and longer, setting them up for injury and fatigue.  Plus, you may not know if you have a more serious condition, such as a herniated disc, torn ligaments, bone or joint disease, cancer, or something else that is causing your pain, in which case popping it on your own will not fix the underlying problem.

When you go to a chiropractor, you will fill out a patient history form, and will be asked questions about your condition/injury. The doctor will perform an exam checking for range of motion, strength, neurological conditions, joint integrity, nervous system function, reflexes, posture and much more. All of this data is combined with the information you provided to find out 1) what is going on, 2) where is the problem coming from, 3) can we treat it? Once these questions are answered, treatment is based specifically on the information gathered, and chiropractic adjustments are administered ONLY to the areas that NEED it! It isn’t a free for all, “let’s see what pops” and be done with it. In fact, you may not hear any popping at all! That’s right, not all chiropractic adjustments lead a popping noise, and the “noise” is not a way to determine if it was a “good” adjustment. The chiropractor can tell if joints are moving better, if inflammation has decreased, if pain has decreased, if nerve function has improved, etc, and those are the things that will determine if an adjustment was done correctly. So simply popping your back and hearing a noise only means that something moved it does not mean that you gave yourself a chiropractic adjustment.

A chiropractor studies a number of different subjects in school, including extensive anatomy and physiology. They also take a lot of chiropractic technique classes, which are the classes where they actually learn how to adjust patients. They find out what direction the bone has moved out of alignment, and therefore, in which direction the adjustment needs to be performed in order to get it back into place. When you crack your own back, there is no way you can possibly know that. Chiropractors also perform the adjustments with the least amount of force and introducing the least amount of motion possible to get the job done. Again, this is not something that you can accomplish on your own.

So what should you do? For starters, STOP the self-cracking! It isn’t good for you in the short or long-term. Next, get to a chiropractor. He or she will decide the best course of action for a treatment plan. More than likely, they will not be adjusting the “loose” areas where you always feel the need to pop. There is probably a vertebra above or below that area that is stuck and is the real cause of your pain. By adjusting the stuck bone, your loose bones will have a chance to relax and heal. He or she will probably recommend some strengthening exercises to make the muscles and ligaments stronger, which in time will help stabilize and support the joints.

Yoga is also great for spinal health, as it increases flexibility, strengthens tissues, and improves posture. Maintaining a healthy weight is very beneficial to all joints, as it decreases the demand placed on them every day, and decreases wear and tear. Supplements and a healthy diet also promote healing, fight inflammation, and make our bones and joints healthier overall. Vitamin D, fish oil, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, glucosamine chondroitin and coconut oil are all great for this. Limit your amount of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, omega 6 fatty acids, processed foods and soda, as these can all negatively affect spinal health and delay healing. Stay active and drink lots of good water!

Dr. Brenda Trudell is a chiropractor and owner of New Beginnings Chiropractic in Mount Horeb and Sauk City.  The clinic focuses on natural health, especially for women, pregnancy and children through chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, reiki, nutrition and more. For more information, visit