For many people, there’s something about cracking your back that just feels so good. Let’s be honest: The intense stretch that leads to that telltale “popping” sound is so satisfying, not to mention an often-welcome (albeit temporary) relief to the tightness or soreness in your back or neck.
Of course, not everything that feels good is actually good for us. Is that the case with back cracking? We consulted experts to find out.
- What exactly is cracking your back?
- Are there any risks associated with cracking your own back?
- Here’s an important primer on your spine.
- Doctors aren’t totally sure why backs crack in the first place.
- Cracking your neck can actually make things worse, which leads to more cracking, which makes things worse… (You get the picture.)
- Pop quiz: What’s worse than habitually cracking your neck? Letting someone else do it.
- A professional can give you a good, tension-releasing adjustment (chiro-speak for a juicy crack), but if the whole idea freaks you out, there are other ways to get relief.
- Crack your own neck safely?!
- How To Stop Neck and Shoulder Pain With This “Self Adjustment”
- So why does it feel relieving when you crack your back or joints in general?
- Why Does My Back Crack So Much?
- The type of sound depends on its origin
- When spine cracking may indicate a problem
- Learn more:
- Is Cracking Your Back Safe?
- It’s safer to crack your own back instead of having someone else do it— here’s why
- If you want to crack your back, asking your unlicensed friend to do it for you isn’t the best option
- You can also try stretching to relieve tension
- Is It Bad To Crack Your Back? This Physical Therapist Says You Really Shouldn’t Do it Yourself
- Apparently, Yellin says, cracking your back in “an unskilled way” can be really bad for you.
- But cracking your back isn’t the only thing you can do to help your creaky, aching spine.
- If you’re anything like me, though, you’ve probably kept yourself up at night wondering what, exactly, makes that cracking sound in your back in the first place.
- The Truth About Back Cracking and Grinding
- Possible Causes of Cracking Spinal Joints
- Impact of Back Cracking on The Spine
- Back Cracking and Back Pain Relief
- When Back Cracking Warrants Medical Attention
- What Is Crepitus?
- What Causes Joint Crepitus?
- Does Crepitus Need to Be Treated?
What exactly is cracking your back?
When you crack your back, you’re not actually, well, cracking your back. Nothing is splitting, breaking, or coming apart in anyway. “‘Cracking your back’ is a non-clinical term that usually involves a certain maneuver that leads to popping sound,” Charla Fischer, an orthopedic spine surgeon at NYU Langone Health, tells Allure. “The maneuvers can include twisting, bending forward, or leaning backward. The popping sound is the movement of air pockets in joints.” And it’s the maneuvers, not the “popping” that alleviates the pain.
If you’re feeling the need to crack your back, it’s probably because your joints are out of alignment and it’s affecting the area around them. “When joint restrictions exist, it’s common that the surrounding muscles will tighten around that region, which unfortunately increases the stiffness,” David W. Flatt, a board-certified orthopedic chiropractor at Northwestern Medicine Integrated Spine Program in St. Charles, Illinois, tells Allure. “Improving the joint motion will decrease stiffness and likely improve the muscle tension, too.”
Are there any risks associated with cracking your own back?
In general, Flatt says that back cracking isn’t particularly risky — if it’s done by a professional, that is. “The greatest risk I see is with people that crack their spines too much on their own can create hypermobility of the joints, which could lead to increased pain and predispose them to increased vulnerability at those joints,” he says.
Fischer says she’s generally more concerned when people enlist the help of friends in the cracking process than when they try to do it on their own. “When a non-trained person assists in cracking a friend’s back, they can too hard, leading to a muscle injury such as a sprain,” she explains. And then there’s the popular “solution” of asking someone to stand or walk on your back to crack it, which Fischer is also averse to. “It’s too much weight focused in a small area of the body, which can lead to back muscle injury, spine fractures, or abdominal or pelvic organ injury.” First of all: ouch.
There’s also the fact that you simply don’t know the inner-workings of your body in the same way that a doctor who has thousands of hours of classroom instruction, lab experience, and supervised clinical work under their belt. “Imagine filling your own teeth, or…removing your own tonsils” Robert Hayden, a chiropractor in private practice, tells Allure. “The chance of injury would be significant. Trying to manipulate spinal segments without knowledge of the anatomy, structures of the bones, ranges of motion, the proper amount of force to use, and the angles involved could result in strain or sprain injuries, fractures, or neurological damage.”
A registered professional, like a chiropractor or an orthopedist, on the other hand, can much more safely address any issues you’re having. For example, Hayden says, a doctor will do a comprehensive assessment of your medical history and current problem — including a physical exam and possibly imaging — to make a specific diagnosis before even starting on an adjustment. “Then a doctor of chiropractic uses various techniques for spinal adjustments, physiotherapy, stretching, therapeutic exercise, nutritional changes, and possibly other clinical interventions,” he says.
There’s something about what happens when you crack your that’s so unbelievably satisfying. Whether it accidentally snaps and crackles when you stand up or you whip out your best contortionist moves to make it happen, that little pop just feels damn good. If this describes you to a T, you’ve probably been cracking your back for years with no idea as to what, exactly, happens inside your body when you do it.
Clearly nothing is actually breaking, or cracking your back would seriously hurt and be nowhere near as popular as it is. “Cracking your back is very common,” Ferhan Asghar, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at UC Health, tells SELF. But what actually produces that resulting noise and feeling of relief? Oddly enough, what’s really happening when you crack your back is up for some debate (more on that shortly). What’s not up for debate is how damn good it feels. So, let’s dive in to all things back cracking!
Here’s an important primer on your spine.
Before you understand what happens when you crack your back, you have to know a bit about your back itself. Down the center of your back you’ll find your spine, which you can think of as “the scaffolding for the entire body,” according to Cedars-Sinai Spine Center. Your spine protects your spinal cord, a bundle of nerves that transmit messages between your brain and pretty much every part of your body. With the help of vertebrae, or interlocking bones, it also supports about half the weight in your body. The average person is born with 33 vertebrae, but most adults only have 24 since some of the lower ones fuse together over time.
Your vertebrae are divided into sections: your cervical spine (your neck bones), your thoracic spine (the upper part of your back), your lumbar spine (lower back), your sacrum (which joins with your pelvis), and your coccyx (tailbone). Your vertebrae connect with each other at the back via flexible joints, and rubbery cushions known as discs are in between each one to provide some cushioning. Finally, your vertebrae connect with muscles, ligaments, and tendons throughout your back to help you do everything from pound out Russian twists at the gym to lean over and whisper in someone’s ear.
Doctors aren’t totally sure why backs crack in the first place.
“There are a number of theories on why this happens, but nobody really knows,” Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, tells SELF.
The most widely believed theory comes down to pockets of gas that hang out in your joints. This isn’t the same kind of gas that escapes from your body after you’ve had a ton of beans or protein bars This gas comes from a lubricant inside your joints known as synovial fluid, which helps give nutrients to the cartilage in your joints to help them glide smoothly. Cartilage’s main job in the body is to make sure that whenever you are moving your limbs this way and that, the movement is, and feels, smooth. That’s why it’s a key player when it comes to cracking your back.
When you apply force to your joints, pressure can build up and turn into dissolved gases like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. The thinking is that these gases shift—and emit a cracking noise as they dissipate—when you do an extreme stretch, Dr. Anand says. The gas actually shows up on X-rays and MRIs, and your surrounding tissues quickly reabsorb it after you crack your back, Lisa A. DeStefano, D.O., chairwoman of the Department of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF. However, a buzzy 2015 study in PLOS One examined MRIs of knuckles cracking and argued that the cracking actually happens when a gas-filled cavity forms as the joints stretch, not when the gas bubbles themselves collapse.
Thanks to the growing phenomenon of “text neck,” most of us are feeling stiffer than ever in our neck and shoulder regions, so it makes sense that a good crack or two would bring relief, right? Much like the fairly harmless practice of knuckle cracking, easing muscle and joint tension in the neck through some DIY snaps is often seen as a way to counteract all that downward-facing-neck stagnation. But, unfortunately, there’s a huge difference.
“Your brain stem isn’t running through your hands,” says Patrick Kerr, D.C., a New York-based chiropractor. “Cracking your knuckles affects the joints in your finger. But cracking your neck? That’s going to have an effect in your brain and along your spine.”
Yikes. Although it doesn’t always tweak your brain and/or spine, neck cracking could potentially cause harm not only to both of those, but also to tendons and arteries. Most people will simply exacerbate their neck stiffness, and Kerr notes that’s the most common outcome. But there are risks for big, scary outcomes as well. Most notably, you may tear vertebral arteries that lead to the brain, resulting in stroke. The incidence for that is very small, but since it can happen, it’s worth noting.
While Kerr adds that it’s safe to crack your neck very occasionally—and ideally, in an inadvertent way as you turn your head for other reasons—there are numerous reasons to refrain from making it an everyday practice.
Cracking your neck can actually make things worse, which leads to more cracking, which makes things worse… (You get the picture.)
Here’s a fundamental truth, according to Kerr: The human body has a pretty serious design flaw, and it’s called the neck. “You have your brain in a ball, essentially, sitting on top of this slender collection of tendons, arteries, muscles, and vertebrae,” he says. “That’s just bad engineering, really.”
As tension builds from activity—particularly the repetitive kind, like checking your phone or working at a computer—you can get out of alignment. The body’s response is to tighten your neck muscles so that they act as a splint to keep you from overstretching. But then, surprise! The good-for-you splint feels hella tight and leads to more issues in your shoulders and lower back. And that’s when the vicious cracking cycle begins.
“You know, on some level, that movement brings relief, so that leads to cracking,” says Kerr. “But then you begin to discover that it takes more and more effort to get relief. It becomes a habit.”
When it flips into habit mode, then the joint overstretches and becomes more lax, leading to more stiffness and soreness, which then leads to more cracking. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Pop quiz: What’s worse than habitually cracking your neck? Letting someone else do it.
As much as cracking your neck can cause a constant spin cycle of muscle, joint, and tendon issues, that’s nothing compared to the hurt other people can bring down on you, even with the best of intentions.
“Literally, there isn’t a single day in which I don’t see injuries caused by a spouse or friend or teammate,” says Keith Overland, D.C., spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association. “Then, kids pick it up from watching their parents and ‘help out’ their friends with neck and back cracking. I have whole waiting rooms full of those people.”
The problems you might cause by cracking your own neck—more stiffness, pulled muscles, that scary stroke risk—are even greater when you have an untrained pal or significant other do the work. When you begin trying to stretch your neck out, you’ll have a feel for when pain starts being a concern, but your buddy won’t know that until it’s probably too late and some damage is done.
A professional can give you a good, tension-releasing adjustment (chiro-speak for a juicy crack), but if the whole idea freaks you out, there are other ways to get relief.
Lately it seems that around 98 percent of all action movies have the “death by neck crack” move, and some people fear that a visit to a chiropractor, osteopath, or physical therapist will turn the cinematic into the all-too-real.
Crack your own neck safely?!
With this maneuver one may get a cracking sound, but one also may not. The cracking sound as we established is not all that important. What one wants to do is to take a towel and fold it up so that it comfortably fits around ones neck and in ones hands. One then put the towel around the back of their neck. They take the hand which they are going to rotate towards and grab the opposite side of the towel. Then they grab the other side of the towel with the other hand. One would rotate their head towards the direction they want to mobilize it in, and then take their hand on that same side and bring the towel across their cheek. With the other hand they would apply a downward pull on the towel. Once one rotates their neck they will feel a point where they can not actively move their neck any further. At this point they will then use the hand in the direction that they are going too gently and slowly move the joint a little bit further. This should not cause pain but should cause a stretching sensation. One would then let off some of the pressure and then do the same thing again. In an oscillatory manner. This would mobilize ones neck in a very similar manner to a chiropractor’s manipulation.
How To Stop Neck and Shoulder Pain With This “Self Adjustment”
Hi Jack! Thanks for reading and watching! I’ll definitely be doing some vids on proper technique for different exercises and equipment in upcoming episodes. But quickly…regarding Airdynes…the biggest error with this machine and all other machines that have a push/pull option for your upper body is the shoulder shrugging dysfunction during the push/pull.
Keep your rib cage anchored low (as explained in the video above) and always keep the feeling of “pushing away” from your sit bones. This will automatically create the core stiffness you need.
Adjust your seat height to where at the bottom of your foot stroke, your knee is almost straight. This will allow you to get the fullest possible extension in your hips. Also…be sure to spend at least some time pedaling by “pressing through your heels” which will activate your whole leg.
Lastly…the #1 problem I see with ALL cyclists is neck overload from “chin poking”. So, again, keeping the intention of “pushing away” from your support points (sit bones) and letting your head float like a balloon (string tied to the back of your head) is the best form.
And the MOST important thing is not just to be aware of this “push away” phenomenon during exercise, but in each and every moment of your life. It’s ALL about your intention in every moment. Choosing the intention of growth, renewal, expansion, and openness is essentially how you reawaken your inborn core stabiliy.
To me…it’s “The Posture of Spirit”.
The problem is not with cracking itself, but with the pressure that you’re putting on the ligaments, tendons and other soft tissues that make up your joints. These structures can wear out over time, producing pain and other potential problems within the spine.
However, the general consensus from doctors is that occasionally cracking your spine isn’t a problem and can even provide positive mental relief from back pain. That said, there is little evidence to suggest that cracking your back yourself actually provides any real health benefits.
So why does it feel relieving when you crack your back or joints in general?
Well, since scientists aren’t exactly sure why joints crack in the first place, research as to why it feels good is pretty limited. However, there are a few theories on the matter:
One reason could be that movement in general helps reduce pain. Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall developed what is now known as the Gate Control theory in 1965 which, in a nutshell, argues that non-painful input (such as movement) closes that “gates” to painful input and keeps it from traveling through the central nervous system. Some have argued that simply moving a specific location of your back that’s hurting could be enough to block pain signals from reaching your brain; providing temporary relief.
Another reason could be that people interpret the popping sound that comes from joints as a sign that what they’re doing is helping. In a 2011 study, researchers found that, when people hear an audible sound coming from their joints, they typically associate the crack with a physical feeling of release and relief, even if the adjustment didn’t do much.
That said, stretching your back in order to crack it can provide a real feeling of relief for many people who spend much of their day sitting. This is because many of the muscles that support the spine can grow stiff and tense after long periods of inactivity and stretching them, even if it’s done to inadvertently crack your back, can feel really good.
This can lead your brain to interpret and associate the feeling of cracking your back with a looser, more flexible spine, even though it was the stretching of the muscles that actually provided the feeling.
Finally, there have also been some claims that endorphins are released when joints are popped, providing a pleasurable feeling and temporary relief. However, there hasn’t been enough research on this hypothesis to say definitively whether it’s true or not.
Like most things in life, balance is key. It’s okay to crack your back every once in awhile, but if you do it habitually, you could be setting yourself up for potential problems.
It’s also important to note that, if you feel the need to crack your back multiple times a day to help relieve pain or stiffness, you may not be addressing the root of your problem. Daily back pain is not normal and if it’s something you experience you should get in touch with your spinal professional.
Why Does My Back Crack So Much?
Our backs crack for myriad reasons. But what is making this sound? And when should it concern me?
Read on to learn about what makes the cracking sound when you twist or bend your spine, when the sound is normal, and when it may indicate a developing problem in the joints, bones, and/or muscles of your spine.
Find out the 3 common causes of joint crepitus. Watch: Video: Why Do My Joints Crack?
The cracking, popping, or grating that you experience under your skin is called crepitus and usually originates from your joints, but may also develop within your bursae, tendons, or other soft tissues.
Depending on the cause, spinal crepitus can be:
- Crepitus by cavitation:1,2 An audible pop or crack, which may occur during normal movement or when the spine is moved near its end range of motion. Cavitation can occur naturally with exercise or motion and can be induced by a health professional, such as a chiropractor, or osteopathic physician. Cavitation is usually normal and painless and is typically not a cause for concern.
- Arthritic crepitus:3 A snap, click, or coarse grating sensation when you move your spine (or other joints), which is typically caused due to wear and tear within the joints (osteoarthritis).
See Osteoarthritis of the Spine
Crepitus may indicate an injury to a bone or soft tissue.3,4 Sometimes, you may feel a vibration instead of an actual sound.3
The type of sound depends on its origin
Motion-related sounds from your spine are usually produced when you bend forward or rotate the spine.3 The sound can originate from one or more of the following structures:
- Facet joint capsule. Cavitation mostly occurs within your facet joint (joint between your vertebrae) capsule and causes a crack or pop. This sound is produced when the air pressure within the joint changes suddenly—causing bubbles within the joint fluid to form and/or collapse.2,3 This sound is similar to the one produced when you crack your knuckles and is not a sign of joint injury or arthritis.
- Facet joint. When the facet joint surfaces become rough and do not glide smoothly, grating crepitus may be felt. This sound may indicate damaged cartilage in these surfaces resulting from arthritis. More advanced facet arthritis may cause bone-on-bone grinding.4
Watch Facet Joints Video
- Connective tissue. Spasm in the vertebral muscles, roughening of tendons, or adhesions in connective tissues may produce a snapping or grating crepitus during movement.3,4 Connective tissues can also produce normal sounds when they stretch slightly and snap back into place (such as during shoulder movements).
- Disc. Movement of a disc fragment within the spinal facet joint may produce a click sound.4
Watch Spine Anatomy Overview Video
Crepitus may also occur when the movement in your facets is less (producing laxity)3,4 or more (producing instability).2 Crepitus typically increases with age.3
See The Truth About Back Cracking and Grinding
When spine cracking may indicate a problem
If your spine makes cracking sounds, here are a few pointers to help you figure out if the sound is normal or a cause for concern.
Normal joint sounds
Normal sounds are usually felt as an audible crack or pop when you move. Typical characteristics of normal spinal joint sounds are:
- They are painless and can be repeated again
- A repeat is possible only after a gap of a few minutes; the exact time period differs for every individual
A repeat sound can be produced if you are stationary or even if you are constantly moving your back.
Normal joint crepitus sounds produce certain anatomical changes within the joint, such as:
- Production of a gap between the joint surfaces1,2
- Breaking up of connective tissue adhesions between the joint surfaces1,2
- Stimulation of nerves and muscles around the joint2
- Improvement of the range of motion of the joint2
This type of sound is usually more common in men.1
Abnormal joint sounds
Abnormal joint sounds typically have the following characteristics:
- They are usually associated with pain, swelling, collection of fluid, and/or a history of injury
- These sounds can result from degeneration, instability, soft tissue damage, fracture, and/or as a result of past surgical procedures
- The sounds may repeat often, without a refractory period
If you are in doubt or if your back-cracking sound is associated with pain, it is advised to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Intermittent and painless cracking is usually normal and not a cause for concern.
Causes of Neck Cracking and Grinding Sounds
Symptoms of Arthritis of the Spine
Is Cracking Your Back Safe?
You’ve been sitting at a desk all day, or on your feet running from errand to errand and your body just starts to feel tight and achy-nothing a good back or neck crack can’t fix, right? You start twisting and turning looking for that sense of relief and then you hear the familiar “pop!” sound. It’s rewarding until your coworkers or friends chime in preaching about how cracking your back or neck is a risky move. (Avoid their stares and lectures by practicing The Best Yoga Poses to Build Core Strength and Relieve Back Pain.) Someone starts telling horror stories about DIY adjustments causing arthritis, enlarged joints, even saying they’ve heard it can paralyze you! But is any of this really true? To tell get to the bottom of this, we tapped chiropractor Robert Hayden, D.C., former president of the Georgia Chiropractic Association to weigh in.
When you visit a chiropractor, you’ll get an adjustment which in pro terms is defined as a specific thrust applied to a vertebra. When you crack your joints, whether it be your neck, back, or knuckles, you’re doing the same thing, except chiropractors are trained to know which joints actually need adjusting. “In the skilled and educated hands of a chiropractor, your joints are being adjusted with the full knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics of those joints,” says Hayden, adding that there has been no evidence that adjusted joints are damaged in any way. Oh, and that popping or cracking sound you hear (it happens whether you or the doc is going the adjusting) is the result of a gas bubble forming and then popping in the synovial fluid, which surrounds your joints for safety and movement.
OK, but should you do the cracking yourself?
Hayden says he hears all the time about people trying to crack or adjust their back, neck, or other joints themselves or asking friends to help them out. But unless your sister, bff, or roommate has a license in chiropractic medicine or has studied osteology (that’s the study of the structure and function of the skeleton, in case you were wondering), it’s probably not the best idea. “There is a specific line of drive the chiropractors are trained and licensed to find in order to adjust someone,” he says. “There are numerous dangers to self-adjusting such as brain injuries, disk damage, even the potential stroke.” Yikes!
And if you think chiropractors get a free pass, you’re wrong. Hayden says he doesn’t crack his own neck and explains why by using the analogy of a hair stylist cutting their own hair-you just don’t see that happening.
If you don’t have the time to run to your friendly neighborhood chiropractor, Hayden suggests ice, pain creams, and maintaining as much movement as possible until you are able to get a proper adjustment. (You might also give these 5 Weird Remedies for Neck and Back Pain a try.)
- By By Justine Hall
It’s the end of the day and your back is stiff AF. You’re basically walking around like Frankenstein.
So you give it a good crack—and ahhhhh, sweet, sweet relief.
But you can’t help but wonder: Is it bad to crack your back?
What happens when you crack your back?
Our joints are made up of tendons and ligaments, and we have cartilage in between that helps everything glide and move smoothly.
When you apply pressure to your joints by twisting or cracking your back, it releases gas (that’s the popping sound you hear).
Every once in a while, that’s okay, but cracking daily can cause the cartilage to wear out, leading to pain or possibly tendon and ligament tears.
What you can do instead of cracking your back
Gentle stretching and exercising are safer ways to relieve tension. A warm shower can also help—once you step out and dry off, slowly bend forward at the waist and hang toward the ground for 15 to 30 seconds.
If the tension is centered in your upper back, foam-roll for five minutes a few times a week: Lie on back with feet flat, knees bent at 90 degrees, and the roller placed underneath shoulders, perpendicular to body. Lift butt and wrap arms like you’re giving yourself a tight hug. Use feet to slowly roll up and down.
Source: Armin Tehrany, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Women’s Health Magazine. For more great advice, pick up a copy on newsstands now.
It’s safer to crack your own back instead of having someone else do it— here’s why
- Cracking your back isn’t always a bad thing— but, there are risks involved.
- While having a professional crack your back is best, cracking your own back is better than having an unlicensed friend or family member do it for you.
- There are other, less risky, ways to relieve tension in your back.
For some, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as the sound and sensation of a cracking back. The sense of release, the audible pops, and the deep stretch can feel like a 30-second yoga class.
And, cracking your back isn’t always a bad thing— as long as you’re not doing it constantly.
“Every once in a while, that’s okay, but cracking your back daily can cause the cartilage to wear out, leading to pain or possibly tendon and ligament tears,” orthopedic surgeon Armin Tehrany explained to Women’s Health.
Healthline also reported that cracking joints like your neck or back can result in permanent stretching of the surrounding ligaments. This can cause conditions such as perpetual instability, which makes you more at risk of developing osteoarthritis. Chronic back cracking can also leave you with hypermobility, or an abnormal range of motion in your joints.
If you want to crack your back, asking your unlicensed friend to do it for you isn’t the best option
With all of those risks at play, it’s no surprise that when it comes to manipulating the bones of your back, experts say that it’s always better to get a professional to do it. But, if that’s not an option, cracking your own back is safer than having a friend do it for you.
“It’s pretty hard for you to hurt yourself when you’re cracking your back on your own, since you’ll instinctively want to protect yourself from harm,” Ferhan Asghar, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at UC Health, told SELF.
An unlicensed person could use too much force when attempting to crack your back. However, when an unlicensed person does it for you, they might use more force or pressure than is healthy for your back, You can end up damaging bone or muscle if your buddy bends you the wrong way.
“When a person performs a violent twisting motion, they are taking a nonspecific spinal joint and pressing it into an extreme position, giving off the audible cracking sound,” physical therapist Jeffrey Yellin told Elite Daily.
And you might want to limit your personal back-cracking. Yellin warned that inexpertly cracking your back a lot over time might lead to an unstable, misaligned spine.
You can also try stretching to relieve tension
If you’re not looking to crack your own back, you can practice gentle stretching after a warm shower, Dr. Tehrany told Women’s Health. Step out of the shower, dry yourself off, and slowly bend forward at the waist. Hang over the ground for 15 to 30 seconds, or as long as is comfortable. This will help relieve any tension in your back and shoulders without actually cracking your joints.
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Is It Bad To Crack Your Back? This Physical Therapist Says You Really Shouldn’t Do it Yourself
There usually comes a point in the day when it’s time for a big, juicy stretch, and along with it, a nice snap, crackle, and pop of the neck, back, or knuckles. But “cracking” your joints and bones is something that you’re usually told is a terrible habit that will leave your body all gnarled up and in pain. But really, is it bad to crack your back, or is that just one of those things your parents insisted on reprimanding you for as a kid? I mean, come on, it does feel pretty darn good when you do it, so what’s the harm?
Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news for all of the back-crackers of the world (myself included), but according to Jeffrey Yellin, DPT, CSCS, of Professional Physical Therapy,it really isn’t good for you when you crack your back — at least, when you do so on your own.
“When a person performs a violent twisting motion,” Yellin tells Elite Daily, “they are taking a nonspecific spinal joint and pressing it into an extreme position, giving off the audible cracking sound.” Yeah, I guess that doesn’t sound very good, when you put it that way.
Apparently, Yellin says, cracking your back in “an unskilled way” can be really bad for you.
The problem with cracking your own back, Yellin explains, is that the “release” you experience is not specific to the spinal level or back issue that actually needs to be corrected. In other words, it’s kind of like you’re scratching an itch, but you’re not actually getting rid of the rash.
So, unfortunately, instead of making anything better, the cracking you do can affect certain parts of your spine that just don’t need that intense or forceful of a stretch. According to Yellin, cracking your back a lot, over time, could leave you with an unstable, misaligned spine. However, the physical therapist tells Elite Daily, “a skilled back crack,” one that is done by a licensed health practitioner, can isolate the part of your spine that actually needs some relief and adjustment, without making things worse in the long run.
But cracking your back isn’t the only thing you can do to help your creaky, aching spine.
Pursuit Physical Therapy on YouTube
According to Yellin, simple, spinal-flexing stretches can help relieve the tension in your back. “Muscles that cross the lumbar spine and sacrum, including the hip flexors, hamstrings, piriformis, and glutes, should be stretched to keep the area loose,” he tells Elite Daily. And if you have no idea what those muscle groups are, Yellin’s basically just referring to your lower back, hips, and butt — stretch all of it! Specifically, Yellin recommends spinal mobility exercises like the cat/camel yoga stretch, prone press-ups (which you can watch in the above video), and knee-to-chest pulls.
And while this may seem kind of obvious (but also sort of impossible to accomplish) Yellin says it’s important to remember that your back, on a regular basis, shouldn’t feel tight, stiff, or tense. A healthy back, he explains, usually feels pretty comfortable and loose. If you’re feeling like you literally need to crack your back all the time, it’s in your best interest to see your doctor and/or a physical therapist to figure out what’s really going on in your body.
If you’re anything like me, though, you’ve probably kept yourself up at night wondering what, exactly, makes that cracking sound in your back in the first place.
Well, the formerly held belief, according to SELF, was that, when you put pressure on your joints, it builds up little pockets of gases like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. It was thought that when these gas bubbles move around, they produce a cracking noise when they pop.
However, a 2015 study published in the journal PLOS One looked more closely at MRIs of people’s knuckles cracking, and the researchers found that the sound actually happens when a little gas-filled cavity forms while your joints are stretching, not when the gas bubbles themselves collapse. Either way, the sound really is all about gas bubbles. Hey, the more you know, right?
With all that said, I know it’s so deeply satisfying to hear that crack or pop when you adjust your spine. But for the sake of your health, it’s probably best to leave that stuff to the professionals.
The Truth About Back Cracking and Grinding
Back cracking can occur whenever the spine’s facet joints are manipulated out of or into their normal position, such as when twisting the lower back or neck. When the facet joints move like this, they can produce an audible crack or pop along with a grinding sensation or sudden relief of pressure.
The cracking, popping, snapping, or grinding sensation that occurs when a joint moves is called crepitus and is usually a harmeless occurrence. Watch: Video: Why Do My Joints Crack?
There are two facet joints at each level of the spine, one on the right and the other on the left side. Each facet joint consists of a bony protrusion from the upper and lower vertebrae that are connected together by synovium and a network of ligaments.
Watch Facet Joints Video
Back cracking, also called crepitus, is a common occurrence that differs slightly for everyone. Cracking the facet joints is typically not painful or cause for concern.
Possible Causes of Cracking Spinal Joints
There is no consensus on what causes joints to crack or on the potential long-term effects of frequent back cracking. The mechanisms that cause joints to crack or grind can differ from person to person. There are three primary theories about why facet joints crack, pop, or grind:
- Cavitation. Surrounding each facet joint is a capsule of liquid, called synovial fluid, that lubricates the joints and allows for smooth, comfortable movements. One theory on crepitus suggests that air pressure within the joint is suddenly altered when the joint is cracked, resulting in the formation or collapse of an air cavity in the synovial fluid that produces a popping sound.1
- Ligament or tendon snapping. When a tight or tense ligament is pulled across a surface of bone, cartilage, or another tendon or ligament, it can create a snapping noise similar to a joint crack or pop.
- Bone grinding. Deteriorated cartilage surrounding a spinal joint can cause popping, cracking, or grinding. Cartilage may wear down from overuse and/or age, causing the bones of the joint to rub together and produce a grinding sensation and a sound similar to a crack or pop.
After a joint is cracked, it can take about 20 minutes for it to be able to crack again. It is thought that during this refractory period, the joint needs to “reset,” or return to its previous position and pressure. Forcing the joint to crack again as it resets is not advised, as doing so can push the joint past its comfortable range and strain the surrounding ligaments.
Impact of Back Cracking on The Spine
The exact mechanics of facet joint cracking and its possible effects are not fully understood. The effects of joint cracking likely vary due to individual differences in overall muscle and joint function. As a general rule, cracking the spinal joints does not cause pain or necessitate medical attention.
Back Cracking and Back Pain Relief
Cracking the facet joints is known to provide temporary relief from low back stiffness or joint pressure. More research is needed to identify any long-term benefits of back cracking.
Manual manipulation, a common method of back and neck pain relief, may focus on adjusting the facet joints to provide a healing environment and reduce pain. These adjustments may create a cracking sound.
See Understanding Spinal Manipulation
Medical literature suggests that manual manipulation of the facet joints can contribute to decreased stiffness, improved range of motion, and a temporary reduction in pain.2 Manual manipulation, also called spinal adjustments, is commonly provided by chiropractors and osteopathic physicians.
See Chiropractic Adjustment
When Back Cracking Warrants Medical Attention
If back cracking is paired with troubling or painful symptoms, it may indicate a structural or degenerative problem with the joint. If the following occurs with facet joint cracking, medical attention may be warranted:
- Stinging, throbbing pain. Pain that feels sharp, stabbing, hot, or throbbing can sometimes occur when a joint is cracked. In the spine, this pain may indicate that a joint is pinching or irritating a nerve root.
- Consistent cracking. A joint that consistently cracks, pops, or grinds when moved can be a sign of joint dysfunction. Possible causes of consistent joint cracking and grinding include a damaged ligament or cartilage, deteriorated synovial capsule, and/or bone to bone grinding from osteoarthritis or other causes.
- Locking joint. If one of the spinal joints feels like it sticks or locks in place with certain movements, the joint structures may be deteriorated.
- Recent injury. If a noticeable change in joint cracking occurs after a trauma or injury, medical attention is typically advised to ensure that a structural change (such as a minor fracture or torn ligament) is not disrupting joint function.
If any of the above symptoms, or other concerning symptoms, are present it is advisable to consult a physician for diagnosis and treatment.
There is little consensus regarding the long-term implications of habitual joint cracking. It is thought that when a joint is repeatedly cracked, it is consistently pulled out of its natural position, which may cause the ligaments around the joint to loosen over time. Currently there is no known correlation with joint cracking and degenerative changes.
“Cracking joints” and “popping knuckles” are an interesting and poorly understood phenomenon. There are many theories as to why joints crack or pop, but the exact cause is simply not known.
As a rule, painless cracking of joints is not harmful. However, common sense would generally suggest that the intentional and repetitive cracking of one’s joints not only is potentially bothersome socially but could also be physically troublesome when it produces pain.
Knuckle “cracking” has not been shown to be harmful or beneficial. More specifically, knuckle cracking does not cause arthritis.
Joint “cracking” can result from a negative pressure pulling nitrogen gas temporarily into the joint, such as when knuckles are “cracked.” This is not harmful. “Cracking” sounds can also be heard if tendons snap over tissues because of minor adjustments in their gliding paths. This can occur with aging as muscle mass and action change.
If cracking is accompanied by pain, there could be underlying abnormalities of the structures of the joint, such as loose cartilage or injured ligaments. Some patients with arthritis (inflammation of joints, usually painful), bursitis, or tendinitis notice “cracking” sounds due to the snapping of irregular, swollen tissues.
What Is Crepitus?
Crepitus, sometimes called crepitation (krep-i-tay-shen), describes any grinding, creaking, cracking, grating, crunching, or popping that occurs when moving a joint. People can experience crepitus at any age, but it becomes more common as people get older.
See Conditions Related to Degenerative Arthritis
Crepitus describes any grinding, creaking, cracking, grating, crunching, or popping that occurs when moving a joint.
The sound associated with crepitus may be muffled or it may be loud enough for other people to hear.
The term crepitus is sometimes also used to describe other conditions, such as lungs crackling from respiratory illnesses and bones grating after fractures.
What Causes Joint Crepitus?
Crepitus is often caused by tiny gas bubbles that form and then collapse within the joints. This type of popping does not typically cause pain.
Common causes of creptius include:
- Air bubbles popping inside the joint. This popping does not cause pain.
- Tendons or ligaments snapping over the joint’s bony structures. This snapping sometimes causes pain.
- Arthritis—typically either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis—that causes a joint’s articular cartilage to degenerate. While arthritis often leads to pain, not everyone with joint degeneration will experience it.
See What Is Knee Osteoarthritis?
When a joint’s cartilage degenerates, the joint is no longer adequately protected against friction and impacts. In addition, the loss of cartilage can alter the joint’s biomechanics and cause bones to grind against one another. These changes can result in crepitus.
Read more about Knee Osteoarthritis
Many people experience crepitus in their knees. People can also get crepitus in other joints, such as the hip, shoulder, neck and spine, which are frequently affected by arthritis.
See Crepitus in the Knee
Crepitus may also be caused by arthritis, such as osteoarthritis of the knee.
Watch: Knee Osteoarthritis Video
Does Crepitus Need to Be Treated?
Crepitus usually is not a cause for concern. In fact, most people’s joints crack or pop occasionally, and that is considered normal. But if crepitus is regular and is accompanied by pain, swelling, or other concerning symptoms, it may be an indication of arthritis or another medical condition.