While the rest of you are cracking nuts this Christmas, is there one member of your family who just can’t resist cracking their joints? Sometimes the people around them are full of dire warnings about the consequence of joint cracking, but are they right?
Many of us seem to derive immense satisfaction from cracking our knuckles, neck, lower back, hips, ankles or toes. But what causes joints to crack and is it a good idea to do it?
In this article we are going to look specifically at neck cracking because our necks are full of nerves and blood vessels which can easily become damaged as a result of neck cracking.
Causes of neck cracking
When joints crack, there are three possible reasons:
- Escaping Gas – our joints are surrounded by capsules containing fluid that helps the bones and tissues to move together smoothly. Within this fluid there is oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. When the capsule is stretched, gas bubbles are released, making a popping or cracking sound, sometimes referred to as boiling or cavitation.
- Movement of tendons and ligaments – Within our joints are tendons and ligaments which connect the bones and muscles. If a tendon moves slightly out of place, it can make a snapping noise when it returns to its original position. The same can happen with ligaments, which tighten when the joint is moved.
- Arthritis – When someone develops arthritis, cartilage can lose its smoothness. As the joint surface becomes rougher, it can make a noise when it moves.
Risks of neck cracking
Neck cracking is a practice commonly used by chiropractors to relieve pain and stiffness.
However, it is not without its risks and some chiropractors believe these risks outweigh the potential benefits. The risks include:
- Blood clotting – this is very dangerous as it can stop the oxygen supply to the brain.
- Stroke – neck cracking can tear the vertebral artery supplying blood to the brain. This tearing can cause a stroke. Strokes have been found to be more common in people who crack their necks, particularly in those under 60.
- Osteoarthritis – cracking can lead to instability in the neck, making you more prone to osteoarthritis, which is a condition where the tissue at the end of the bones is weakened.
- Loss of mobility – each time you crack your neck, you risk damaging the connective tissues in the spine. Once damaged, the impact can be reduced mobility and possible arthritis.
Benefits of neck cracking
If you have healthy bones, ligaments and muscles, the risks associated with neck cracking are low.
Most chiropractors are happy to use the technique as they believe it to be an effective way to relieve pain and correct the positioning of the spine.
Neck cracking may be helpful to relieve:
- neck pain
- lower back pain
- some joint conditions
Should I crack my own neck?
As you can see there are significant risks associated with neck cracking and even some chiropractors are reluctant to do it.
If you have pain or stiffness in your neck, the best thing to try is some gentle stretches. You could also try over the counter medication, ice packs, changing your mattress and avoiding carrying heavy shoulder bags.
If this does not fix the problem, talk to your doctor who may recommend visiting a chiropractor or orthopaedic surgeon.
A medical specialist will examine you to try and establish what is causing the problem. They will use gentle manipulation techniques to try and release your neck and restore normal movement.