Snap, crackle, pop — Scoliosis and back cracking

Originally Published: July 9, 2004 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 6, 2010
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Dear Alice,

I just was diagnosed with minor scoliosis — I am 38-years-old (today!) — I do yoga and while at a retreat, was told by the instructor that it looked like I had a little scoliosis on the right side — I crack my back, neck, and so on — I mainly do this on my right side (the side I have minor scoliosis) — I feel very tight if I don't do it, and feel better afterwards, but I just know it's wrong — I don't know if my cracking my back is worse with this problem, or if I do it because of this problem — I have tried to stop, but even when I stop for a short period of time (month), my right shoulder "pops" (not snaps or cracks like when I do it intentionally while doing certain activities, like push ups or bench press (and it will happen over and over) — this also occurs on my right hip when I do things, such as leg lifts — what do you think? — will this possibly go away if I stop or are they not related?

Dear Reader,

Normally, a person's spine is curved slightly from front to back — in other words, if you look at someone from the side, his or her back-bone won't go straight up and down, but will bow smoothly instead. Sometimes the spine also curves somewhat from left to right, so if you looked at a person's skeleton head-on, you would see the backbone curve to one side as well. This sort of side-to-side bending is called scoliosis, a condition that mostly affects adolescents when they have their growth spurt. Scoliosis appears to run in families, but in about 80 percent of cases, a specific cause for the condition is unknown.

Signs of scoliosis include:

  • uneven shoulders or waist
  • prominent shoulder blade
  • leaning to one side

Much of the time, scoliosis isn't severe and doesn't require any sort of treatment. Rarely — for 3 to 5 out of every thousand children — scoliosis is bad enough to call for special treatment, which could take the form of a special orthopedic brace or surgery. Sometimes, severe scoliosis can alter the spacing between ribs and cause pain and difficulty breathing and, in rare and extreme cases, cause bone loss and damage of the heart and lungs. It's particularly important for children with scoliosis to be examined and monitored by a health care provider, since the condition can sometimes worsen and lead to serious health problems.

First, before getting into whether or not your back cracking is connected with your scoliosis, it's not clear from what you've written if you were diagnosed with this condition by a health care provider. In case you have not been medically evaluated for scoliosis, make an appointment for an exam to make sure that this is what you have. If you do have minor scoliosis, it could indeed be the cause of the tension you're feeling, but it's impossible to be accurate without a physical exam and a diagnosis by a medical provider. And while back-cracking isn't "wrong" per se, it's generally not recommended as a means of relieving back tension — some in the medical community believe that it can result in damage to the spine, lead to pinched nerves, and cause additional back pain. Especially when someone has minor scoliosis, the effects of cracking one's back are individual, and it's hard to predict whether they will be helpful or harmful in the long-run. Perhaps a talk with your health care provider or orthopedist and an X-ray examination can help figure out if back-cracking is indeed a good idea, or if other forms of treatment might help you feel more relaxed. And, many effective ways to relieve back and body tension don't involve cracking: maybe massage, yoga, meditation, and/or regular stretching could be helpful, as well.

Alice