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,

That cracking and poppin’ got you stopping to think about what might be going on? It's possible that feeling the need to crack your neck and back is due to scoliosis. Scoliosis is a type of bend in the spine that most often affects adolescents when they have growth spurts, but may affect adults as well. Generally, a person's spine is curved slightly from front to back — in other words, if you look at someone from the side, their spine doesn’t go straight up and down but will somewhat arch outwards below the shoulder blades then back inwards at the lower back. Sometimes the spine also curves 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 bend is scoliosis. While the specific cause is unknown, the condition appears to run in families. However, because each person's case is different, it’s difficult to say whether or not scoliosis is the cause of your cracking and popping. In any case, it's unclear whether or not you were diagnosed by a health care provider, but speaking with one about a diagnosis and treatment options may be a good first step.  

According to Mayo Clinic, signs of scoliosis include:

  • Uneven shoulders or waist
  • Prominent shoulder blade
  • Leaning to one side
  • One hip higher than the other

Scoliosis in adults may be caused by a missed adolescent scoliosis diagnosis that has progressed or a degenerative disease, such as arthritis. There are both operative and non-operative treatment options, although most adults are able to control the symptoms of scoliosis with observation from a health care provider, exercises that strengthen the back, back braces, over-the-counter pain medications, or, for severe pain, nerve blocking injections. 

In case you haven’t been evaluated by a medical professional, you may want to consider talking with your health care provider to make sure that this is what's causing the troubles on your right side. Using a physical exam, X-ray, or magnetic resonance image (MRI), your provider will be able to determine whether or not you have scoliosis, and may be able to offer some explanations for the cracking and popping on your right side.

As for the neck and back cracking, the sound you hear is the fluid in the joints becoming gas, which makes that popping sound. The fluid becomes gas because the movement that's done in order to crack the area stretches the capsules around the joint, increasing the elasticity and decreasing the pressure on the joint. For those without scoliosis, this process is typically low risk. However, when someone has minor scoliosis, the effects of cracking their back are individual, and it's difficult to predict whether it'll be helpful or harmful in the long-term. It may be risky, though, if done in an incorrect or forceful manner, and the effects also depends on severity of the pre-existing scoliosis.

In fact, people who feel like they need to crack their neck or back from that “tightness” you refer to, Reader, usually have some sort of pre-existing condition like scoliosis. All that to say, it may be that the scoliosis is causing the symptoms and not the other way around. However, those who have scoliosis may exacerbate their pain and the condition if they’re cracking their neck and back in a way that isn't properly adjusting their neck and spine. This is especially true when the neck and back cracking:

  • Is accompanied by pain
  • Causes dizziness or nausea
  • Is consistent (this is a sign of a restrictive joint)
  • Is post-surgery or post-accident

To reiterate, there’s no evidence that back and neck cracking themselves cause scoliosis, and they may, in fact, be a symptom of the condition. Your health care provider can offer more information about scoliosis, or provide effective and low-risk treatments to help you feel more relaxed. In fact, many effective ways to relieve back and body tension don't involve cracking: massage, meditation, or regular stretching could be helpful, as could continuing with your yoga practice. 

Here's to hoping some of these strategies "pop" for you!

Alice!

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