Myths, benefits, harm, and what’s actually happening to your joints
Have you ever felt the need to push, pop, or grip your neck or back and give it a big twist? It’s common to feel tight and restricted when we are so sedentary throughout the day, and often people find short term relief with self cracking, or self-manipulation as it’s formally called.
Let’s discuss what's actually happening, and understand how chronic self-cracking can lead to more harm than good.
What Is The Noise I Hear?
Our joints are the connection points between bones, and all joints have free gas and synovial fluid in between them. This allows for minimal friction and smooth gliding when they move.
The noise occurs when there is a rapid pressure difference that causes the free gas to move around. It takes time for the free gas to re-settle (about 20 minutes), which is why you can’t re-crack a joint right after.
When you twist yourself, you aren’t truly cracking anything. The sound is just the movement of gas. Upper back cracking is notorious for making a lot of noise, but often the joints aren't reset properly and are simply releasing free gas.
Believe it or not, recent studies show it's not the gas escaping the joints, but rather a negative pressure that pulls the gas in! Think of when you are at home with windows open in different parts of the house, and all of a sudden the door slams (due to the change in pressure from outside to inside)!
Is Cracking My Knuckles The Same Thing As Cracking My Back?
The joints in your knuckles are simple, non weight bearing joints. Arthritis has not been shown to occur with repetitive knuckle crackers. If we take basic common sense on how your knuckles function, it’s probably not best to compress (flex) your knuckles in to create a pop, but rather gently distract (pull) them from a neutral position. But not all joints are created equal...
What you should be worried about is the forceful self popping of your Spinal joints!
If you gently stretch your arms upwards and back and there is noise, that’s not much of a concern if it doesn’t cause any pain. But when a non-specific force is put into your Spine, the consequences for damaging joints and ligaments becomes a lot more severe.
Just to recap, gentle stretches are ok, but when you are placing any excessive force into your delicate spinal joints on your own, you are opening the door for creating long-term damage.
How Is A Chiropractic Adjustment Different?
As a Chiropractor, we are highly trained to perform Adjustments (corrective gentle thrusts) into the Spine and other joints in ways that are incredibly safe. What Chiropractors do, and what occurs with self-manipulation, is dramatically different. Specificity is very important due to the sensitive nature of your Nervous System and Spinal components.
There are many times that the painful area people try to self-manipulate with are often compensatory areas. The actual problem is somewhere else!
Chiropractors can analyse, detect, and correct the primary problem which can effectively resolve these secondary compensations.
With the techniques a Chiropractor uses, and the way joints are gently brought to tension and Adjusted, there are very low risks of serious adverse reactions such as stroke, as biomechanically it is incredibly difficult to occur. But when lay-people try manipulation on their own, they are often putting too much force, torque, and improper direction which can and will cause damage.
Why Do I Feel Like I Have To Keep Popping My Neck After I Do It?
Joints and muscles of your spine that are restricted and tight can often feel like they need to be “popped”, and you should not be intentionally trying to crack those. Self cracking can lead to spinal misalignment (forcing your spine the wrong way to crack), hyper-mobility and ligament laxity, muscle strain, nerve irritation, and more.
While self-cracking can feel good in the short term (neurological stimulation), most of the time it creates more problems.
Before patients start care with us, we often hear them report the “need” to keep self-cracking. This is likely due to large mis-alignments with associated hypermobility. Often when they twist themselves, they are never able to realign the spine in the correct 3D position, leaving the restricted joints still stuck, and only popping the ones that already have too much movement!
Your self cracking can be creating deeper patterns of compensation that make true correction even more difficult.
With corrective Chiropractic care like at Align Chiropractic, we find getting a proper Adjustment helps people stop feeling the sensation of “needing to crack” themselves. By Adjusting the correct restricted segments, and NOT touching/irritating the hyper-mobile ones, we can restore proper mechanics and relieve tension and dysfunction.
What Is The Worst Way To Pop My Joints?
First let’s talk for a moment about biomechanics. Your spinal joints are highly complex, and are housing and protecting your Nervous System which helps run and control your entire body and health. Most mis-alignments have three vectors (forwards-backwards, up-down, left-right) and you need to be able to reset those joints knowing which parts are fixated.
The worst ways to self manipulate are sadly the most common ones we see in the office and M.R.T. Let's explain each scenario and why you shouldn’t!
1. DO NOT CRANK YOUR NECK When you turn your neck as far as it can, and then twist it more, you are moving into a range of motion zone that is very delicate called the Para-Physiological barrier. Using your hands on your jaw as a lever to torque your neck to pop is going to place too much force past that barrier and can cause severe damage to your ligaments and joints.
2. DO NOT TWIST YOUR LOW BACK IN A CHAIR
Often in the office people will push against a chair while seated and torque your low back backwards. This is using a long-lever manipulation (vs a safer, short-lever adjustment used by a Chiropractor) that will crack your back but irritate your discs. In your lumbar spine (low back), each vertebrae only has a few degrees of rotation possible, so when you over-twist and input a large rotational force, you are always going to strain and hurt the discs and ligaments.
3. DO NOT WHIP YOUR UPPER AND LOWER BODY OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
Similar to the chair, we’ve seen people standing and torquing their low back by bringing the opposite elbow and knee together like a marching position. This force is likely to injure your Thoraco-Lumbar junction, where your low back meets your middle back, since the facet joint angles change more dramatically here.
4. DO NOT WHIP YOUR NECK AROUND This is, in my opinion, one of the worst and scariest scenarios. For some reason, we always seem to see it on the M.R.T. right after they are hunched over their phone held low (coincidence much?). Essentially they violently throw their neck in any direction searching for noise and some temporary relief. Without any stabilization of the surrounding joints, a lot of force is being imparted into the joints. This is like giving yourself mini-whiplash. Do not resort to this.
So Are There Any Benefits To Self Cracking?
As a Chiropractor, and knowing what I know, I do not self-crack my Spine. I do lots of mobility work and stretches daily, and yes there are occasionally popping noises with stretching. With a healthy spine, under these conditions it is perfectly acceptable and may even prove to be beneficial as the spine is learning and expressing new ways to control movement patterns. I also proactively get checked and Adjusted by another Chiropractor every 2 weeks in order to ensure no problems form in the future.
With an unhealthy spine (think lots of forward head posture, rounding upper back, etc) intentional self cracking should be avoided. In general, self cracking your spine multiple times a day by yourself is a dangerous game that can leave you with long term damage.
Chiropractic Adjustments require skill, technique, and years of learning to do it safely and effectively. If you are finding yourself chronically stuck in a loop of stiffness and self-cracking, get a Spine check up with one of our Chiropractors to get to the root cause of the problem.
For more information, or a free consult to see if your case is right for us, email us at