Holistic Treatment

The Consequences of Cracking Your Back, Explained by Chiropractors and an Orthopedic Surgeon

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Cracking your back is a guilty pleasure. Pleasure because, well, there's nothing quite as satisfying as feeling (and hearing) that crack travel all the way up a stiff spine; guilty because everyone warns against how bad it is for you. But is cracking your neck and back actually bad for you? Or is that a myth?

“Typically I answer this question with another question: Is it good to crack your back and neck? And the answer is no,” says Dennis Colonello, DC, PT, the co-founder of all33, a chiropractic-inspired office chair company.

As Dr. Colonello sees it, cracking your neck, back, or anything for that matter is nothing more than a type of pain control—which he says is akin to taking a drug.

“Cracking your neck or back may give you some short-term relief, but it provides no real long-term benefit,” he says, noting that, like drugs, it’s possible to misuse to that short-term relief. “Finding a true resolution to the problem is all about posture, anatomically-correct alignment, and movement and you should see a professional physical therapist, osteopath, acupuncturist, or chiropractor to figure out a true resolution.”

That’s not to say that cracking is always off the table, rather that it’s a means to address a symptom of imbalance rather than necessarily fixing the imbalance itself.

“Cracking is a tool to use in specific situations, when it’s necessary to correct a fixation in your body’s joints,” says Dr. Colonello, noting that, on average, he manually manipulates only three of 15 patients per day. “Cracking, manipulation, and adjustments are a godsend when a joint is stuck and interfering with neural homeostasis, but when delivered to an unstable joint, they’re traumatic.”

That’s why the negative connotation of cracking arose in the first place. Since whether or not it's bad to crack your back is an often debated subject, however, keep reading for an even more in-depth understanding of the habit, including what can go wrong in the process.

What’s that cracking noise?

According to Ciara Cappo Lopez, DC, of WellActive Health, cracking is actually the sound a joint makes when pressure is put on it. "That's because there are pockets of gas in these joints that burst and create a sharp noise commonly described as a ‘pop’ and ‘crack,’” she says.

Why you shouldn’t crack your back or neck

Cracking your fingers is one thing—albeit, still unadvised—but cracking your back or neck can lead to some pretty scary consequences.

“Repetitive cracking can lead to joint instability, which leads to a chronic pain situation,” Dr. Colonello warns. “There are vertebral arteries precariously situated in the back of the neck that could be torn by cracking your neck, which could lead to stroke—which is a well-recognized complication of neck manipulation—or even death.”

In the middle of those two extremes is the chance of accidentally loosening your neck or back joints—which might not sound horrible but can be pretty detrimental down the road. That’s because, according to Jonathan Hyde, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Miami Spine Specialist, routinely cracking the neck or back may be associated with loosening of the joint—also known as hypermobility, which can make the joints vulnerable to injury.

Generally, Dr. Lopez says that cracking your back is a bad idea. "Usually when people crack their neck and back, they are haphazardly manipulating and straining the muscles around their spine to forcefully cause the crack," she says. "This can compromise our muscle tissues, and result in joint pain and decreased range of motion."

But why does it feel so good to crack your back? Dr. Hyde says that it’s possible for cracking to cause a release of endorphins, but 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.

How to overcome the urge to crack your back or neck

It’s simple: Book an appointment with a chiropractor so that you can get to the root of why you feel the need to crack in the first place. "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," says Noam Sadovnik, DC. And a chiropractor has the training and skills to know how to properly manipulate joints and give you some lasting relief.

And, whatever you do, please note that asking a friend to bear hug you from behind and crack your back is not a substitute for a highly-educated doctor’s touch. "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," warns Dr. Mangano, further noting that you could break a rib, disrupt the cartilage around the ribs, mess with the muscles, or damage your internal organs. So, yeah, hard pass.

Instead of cracking your neck, try this stretching sequence:

Then, try this guided stretch for lower-back pain:

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