When a joint is hurting, you might be inclined to frequent joint cracking. When the back, neck, or other jointed areas are causing for pain, and the experience of cracking these joints can provide a feeling of relief, even if it is only temporary. Many people worry about the safety of cracking their joints. The short answer is, no, don’t risk it. The long answer is, yes, within reasonable limits it’s okay to crack your joints.
First, some basic points. What is actually happening when you crack your neck or back? When you manipulate your spine by rolling your head around, twisting or arching your back, or having it manually manipulated by another person, the relief you are experiencing comes from stretching out the muscles that support your spine. The cracking noise you hear, while related to the manipulation, is not responsible for the pain relief. It is simply the sound of the fluids or gases between your spinal joints being put under pressure. While stretching can be beneficial for people experiencing back pain, it’s not necessarily true that actually cracking your back can relieve pain.
Why do some people believe that it can be harmful to crack your spine? There are two major reasons behind this concern. The first is that there is a rare but very real risk of causing damage, because your spine is a central connector for a vast network of muscles, veins, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. These are all interconnected, and any damage to one part that you accidentally cause through spinal manipulation can have serious consequences.
The other concern is that you can ultimately put a lot of strain on your muscles and bones through frequent manipulation. While this is a lesser risk for younger people with stronger bones and muscles, for older people, it’s much easier to accidentally cause a serious injury. This can be brought on by some action that may feel relatively minor at the time, especially if it is a sudden and jerking motion. Even for younger people, frequent manipulation can lead to long-term wear on the muscles, ultimately decreasing flexibility and elasticity.
What does this mean for you if you have gotten accustomed to finding some pain relief through cracking your neck or back? The main thing to takeaway from this is that there is no actual connection between cracking your joints and feeling pain relief. The pain relief is actually coming from the experience of stretching the muscles. Many doctors who caution against cracking one’s own back note that you can get the same type and degree of pain relief from regular exercise and flexibility training (for example, gentle yoga).
Dr. Kamson would also like to remind patients who are experiencing back pain that it isn’t a good idea to try to take your pain management into your own hands, especially if you aren’t sure about the source of the pain or the potential complications of the methods you are using to try to fix the pain. It’s important to make sure you aren’t causing more damage than good, and that you aren’t ignoring a treatable underlying issue.