You’re feeling stiff and achy, so you roll your neck and shoulders around to relieve some tension… and suddenly, *crack*—there goes your neck! You might be thinking, “Do I need a chiropractor?” or simply curious as to what the hell is cracking in there and what those neck noises mean. So what’s up with all that? Why is your neck cracking?
Why is your neck cracking?
Physical therapist Sridhar Yalamanchili, PT, MSPT, with Atlantic Spine Center in New Jersey says that neck cracking is exceedingly common—it happens to almost everyone—and it happens for various reasons, including general stiffness in that section of the spine. “Stiffness in some of the vertebrae, cavitation, in addition to movement of the tendons and ligaments that support the neck can all cause cracking,” says Yalamanchili. The good news? “Most of the time these noises are harmless.”
But what exactly is cracking, and what is that noise? “The noise is not from the bones or cartilage breaking or rubbing,” says Joshua Scott, MD, board-certified primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. It’s actually, most likely, bubbles making that noise. “Most experts feel that this sound comes from gas pockets of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide in the synovial [joint] fluid that cavitate and pop as the joint is rapidly stretched.” This also explains why you can usually only crack once—“The gasses must re-accumulate in joint fluid which is why we can’t usually ‘crack’ the same joint several times in a row,” says Dr. Scott.
Is cracking your neck okay?
There are some caveats to the harmlessness, though. Yalamanchili says to look out for pain, loss of movement, and tingling or numbness in the neck or arms. In any of these cases, you’re going to want to visit your physician ASAP.
If you have a preexisting condition, it’s also important to see a specialist for any neck cracking. Dr. Scott advises seeing “a licensed professional who is proficient at spinal manipulation to perform such treatments,” and if you have severe osteoporosis, spinal cancer, or a spinal fracture, he says you “should never undergo spinal manipulation of any kind.”
Why does cracking your neck feel so darn good?
“This release of the pressure in the form of bubbles in the joint fluid feels good,” explains Dr. Scott. “Some practitioners think this is from the sudden change in pressure while others feel this is from an endorphin release because of the movement near the spinal cord.”
Watch out for “aggressive or excessive” self-cracking, though—Dr. Scott says that though a neck crack can be satisfying when done in excess it can cause increased pain, nerve damage, or even artery damage that can lead to stroke (mega yikes).
You probably won’t hurt yourself, he says, if you limit it to an occasional crack here and there. “A person who cracks their own neck or back once is unlikely to hurt themselves as the individual generally will protect their spinal cord from moving so far as to cause damage,” says Dr. Scott. However, there can always be too much of a good thing. “Repetitive self-cracking can become a habit and stretch the ligaments surrounding the spine. Over time, this can lead to excessive movement or instability at the joints. This can cause pain, and for this reason, I don’t recommend my patients practice repetitive self-cracking of the back or neck.”