Is it okay to crack my neck?
As a college student, I sometimes spend long hours reading books or looking at computer screens, and often my neck gets stiff. Like many of my joints that get stiff, sometimes I crack my neck, like I would crack my knees or fingers when they feel stiff. I often wind up doing this several times a day.
My question is, could I do irreparable damage to my spinal system if I continue using this method to soothe a stiff neck? Could I wind up a paraplegic if I continue to crack my neck? Leak spinal fluid, etc.?
Dear Stiff-Necked Student,
What a pain in the neck this must be! Cracking joints in the neck and fingers is a common habit for many. There hasn’t been conclusive research on whether cracking your own neck poses risk to your health or contributes to long-term health problems. However, if neck cracking is done incorrectly or too frequently, it’s possible to do some immediate harm and potentially cause more pain in the long run.
When you crack your neck (or any joint for that matter), the joint stretches and allows for the fluid in the joint capsule to spread out. This decreases the pressure in the joint and actually allows the liquid to turn into a gas, which causes the popping noise. Many people report a feeling of relief after this popping noise, as it may feel as though the pressure is being released or the joint is better aligned. Whether this is just a placebo effect—the psychological belief that a treatment works—is up for debate.
To return to your question about the harms, it’s possible that cracking your neck may pinch a nerve leading to more pain, or even break blood vessels in your neck leading to blood clots or stroke. While the latter is rare, it’s important to note.
If you find yourself frequently cracking your neck without relief, it may be time to see a professional, such as a chiropractor. Having your neck cracked by a professional is called cervical spine manipulation. The idea behind this is to correctly align the spinal joints and hopefully improve physical function and overall well-being.
Although quite rare, one complication to be aware of before visiting the chiropractor is the possibility of compressing one of the body's major arteries like the vertebral artery during alignment, which could lead to stroke. This can be a potential point of discussion with your provider prior to receiving cervical spine manipulation. That said, the general consensus is that having a trained professional perform cervical manipulation and alignment procedures is low-risk and may be an effective treatment for neck and back pain.
In addition to visiting a chiropractor, studies demonstrate that more conventional and at-home remedies to treat back and neck pain have similar results. Experiencing a stiff neck is a common affliction and may be very frustrating. For some immediate or short-term relief, you might try:
- Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- Applying heat or ice to the painful area. One method is to use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, then use heat after that (hot showers, hot compresses, or a heating pad).
- Pausing any physical activity for a few days, which may calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.
- Performing slow range-of-motion exercises with your neck: moving the head up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear in order to gently stretch the neck muscles.
- Having someone gently massage the sore or painful area(s).
- Trying to sleep on a firm mattress without a pillow or with a special neck pillow. The goal is to align the head and neck with the rest of your body when laying down.
It may also be helpful to think about how you may have gotten a stiff neck in the first place. Physical therapists, for example, often try to prevent neck pain and stiffness by teaching correct posture and neck-strengthening exercises. You could try to be aware of your neck and body during a long day and keep your body in natural and comfortable positions as much as possible. You mentioned that you spend many hours reading or looking at a computer screen—have you considered adding ergonomic furniture to your living setting?
Ergonomics is the study of people at work and therefore, Ergonomists focus on designing workspaces in a way that provides comfort and decreases the pressure and stress on your joints. Here are some items in a common workspace that you might pay more attention to in order to make sure you're as comfortable as possible during the day:
- Chair: Choose a chair that supports your spinal curve. Adjust the height of your chair so that your feet lie flat on the floor and your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Monitor or screen: Keep your monitor in front of you, approximately one arm's length away. Your screen should be at or slightly above eye level.
- Keyboard and mouse: When typing or using a mouse, keep your upper arms tight to the body and your hands at elbows as parallel to the floor as possible.
List adapted from Mayo Clinic
If the cracking continues without relief, it may be worthwhile to make an appointment with a physical therapist or a chiropractor to ease the discomfort you're feeling now and attempt to prevent recurrence. If your neck pain lasts 12 weeks or more, a spinal specialist may be of interest. While health care providers can help you ease the symptoms of your neck pain, a spine specialist can identify the root cause of your pain.
It’s also recommended that you speak with a health care provider as soon as possible if the pain:
- Is severe
- Doesn’t go away in one week
- Is accompanied by numbness, tingling, swollen glands, a lump in your neck, difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Was caused by a fall or other injury
- Gets worse when you lie down
- Wakes you up a night
- Causes you to lose control of urination or bowel movements
With that, hopefully, you won’t have to snap, crackle, or pop those stiff joints much longer!
Originally published Sep 13, 2013
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