Well, first things first: "The cracking is actually the sound a joint makes when pressure is put on on the joint, known as a synovial joint," explains Dr. Ciara Cappo, DC, of Cappo Chiropractic & Sports Therapy. "That's because there's pockets of gas in these joints that burst and create a sharp noise commonly described as a ‘pop’ and ‘crack.'"
The bursting of these little pockets—which are sometimes referred to as "vacuums," says Dr. Jonathan Hyde, MD, board certified orthopedic surgeon with Miami Spine Specialist—is generally NBD. But that *doesn't* mean you have free rein to crack away. "While it's okay to crack your finger, manipulating your own back and neck is far riskier and more complex—for reasons that don't have to do with these pockets," says Noam Sadovnik, DC, a chiropractor and the founder and CEO of Clinicube Inc. More on these ~complexities~ below.
The case against cracking your back or neck
"Usually when people crack their neck and back, they are haphazardly manipulating and straining the muscles around their spine to forcefully cause the crack," says Dr. Cappo. (Gulp!) "This can compromise our muscle tissues, and result in joint pain and decreased range of motion."
Cracking the neck can also be associated with snapping tendons as well as rubbing of the arthritic joints. That doesn't mean that the cracking causes arthritis—Dr. Cappo assures me that it can't. But in worse-case scenarios, the cracking can irritate already-arthritic joints, and if the condition is bad enough, the joints can get stuck in a wanky, painful position, explains Dr. Hyde. Similarly, if you already have a herniated disc, trying to crack can make it way worse (like worse than the Mean Girls sequel).
Wait, but how can something so bad for me feel so good? There may be a release of endorphins—basically your body's natural pain killers— when you crack your neck and back, says Dr. Hyde. However, Dr. Marina Mangano, DC, founder of Chiro Yoga Flow, chalks it up to mostly a placebo effect. "The sound makes you think something happened. It makes you feel like you did something to your body. But it's not actual relief," she says.
What you should do instead
If your neck and back crack every so often, Dr. Hyde says you probably don't require expert treatment. But if you're always click-clacking away, never feel satisfied, or feel any discomfort in your neck or back, go to the chiropractor. "It may be an indication that your joints are out of alignment, there's intense muscle tension or decreased joint range of motion, or that something serious is going on," explains Dr. Sadovnik. And a chiropractor has the training and skills to know how to properly manipulate joints and give you some lasting relief.
And having someone who isn't a professional crack your back is a bad idea. "If someone tries to crack your back who is not trained to, they could push, pull, or bend too hard and cause muscle or tendon tears," says Dr. Mangano. As for the classic friend-walk-on-your-back move? "No! No! No! You could break a rib, disrupt the cartilage around the ribs, mess with the muscles, or damage your internal organs," she says. Um, yeah, hard pass.
In short, don't let your friends crack your back, don't become a stunt-person in the name of a back or neck crack, and know when to seek out a pro.
To help prevent back pain, try these core exercises that'll combat desk-job-life tightness. And if you've got neck pain, it could be from something called "text neck".
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