Ever have a stiff neck?
Say you’ve been working at your computer for quite a while, so you roll your head around until you hear a soft pop in your neck. Your neck feels a bit better, so you get back to work.
A few hours later, you do the same. Ah, your neck feels better.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. The simple act of popping, or cracking, your neck, knuckles, or even toes can bring about instant relief for a stiff joint. But is it safe?
Well, not really, says Dr. Robert Pinto, a chiropractor with Pinto Chiropractic & Rehabilitation in Williamsburg, Va. Cracking one’s neck, if done too often and without knowing the proper way to move the joint around, can cause serious problems, including stroke.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you actually stand a chance of hurting yourself,” Pinto says.
Think about the neck. There are a whole lot of important body structures contained in one small area – spinal cord, lower brain stem, arteries, blood vessels, ligaments, nerves, bones, joints and muscles. Twisting and turning your neck around could put those delicate body parts at risk. Any one of them could twist, knot up or be permanently damaged, including the arteries that bring blood directly to you brain.
So what happens when you crack your neck?
What you’re hearing is a phenomenon called cavitation. It’s the act of putting negative pressure on a liquid, which creates tiny gas bubbles. Like what happens when you open a can of soda.
Joints contain oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide gasses as well as fluid that lubricates the bones. There’s also negative pressure in the joint. If you introduce a gas bubble in the joint, you can move it significantly further than normal, Pinto says.
Chiropractors use cavitation to free up joints and make them work better than they were working previously. They are trained to learn the best way to do so, and know how to feel for a joint that needs help.
“It’s the art of knowing which one it is, and knowing how to move it so you have a positive outcome,” Pinto says.
The danger in too much self-manipulation of your own joints is over-stretching the ligaments. Much like a rubber band, if you stretch a ligament too much, it can lose its shape – and strength. If you stretch your ligaments too much by cracking your neck or back, they might not be able to provide the stability your joints need to maintain proper alignment. That can lead to problems such as pain, stiffness and even pinched nerves and misaligned vertebra.
It’s different if you crack your knuckles. There aren’t nearly as many delicate parts in your hands. Some studies have shown that repeated cracking of knuckles can actually make them healthier.
But not the neck.
So what should you do if you get a lot of neck stiffness and have an overwhelming urge to crack it? It does get addictive – after all, there are endorphins released every time. But while it feels good for a minute, it doesn’t really help in the long run. It’s just the symptom you’re relieving – not the actual problem.
That’s when it’s time to call a chiropractor, who will do a thorough examination and determine the best treatment plan. Pinto, for example, has been successful in not only treating neck stiffness, but also addressing what makes people self-manipulate.
“It takes a lot of self-control,” Pinto says.