Being on go-mode at all times takes a toll on your body. Typing away at your computer or running around all day can result in an uncomfortable, achy feeling. You know how it goes: Your joints tighten up, and the urge to twist and turn to crack your back creeps in. You give in, and that familiar “pop” sound signals a soothing release. Your back feels a little better afterward, and every time your back tightens up, you crack it again in hopes of relieving the tension.
Back cracking might feel good, but popping your own back could potentially lead to pulled muscles or strained tendons. If done in moderation, you’re less likely to experience dangerous side effects but it's usually only temporary. A recent analysis conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that if you’re feeling pain in your lower back, cracking your back only helps with short-term pain and won’t cause any significant improvements.
Things like this are better left to a professional, so we called on a few experts to give us the deets. Read on to learn if cracking your back is as cracked up as it seems.
Meet the Expert
Why Does Your Back Crack?
You're likely familiar with the sound and feel of cracking your back and joints, but do you know what it is exactly that's creating the satisfying popping noise? Sinett explains: “The cracking sound is actually a release of carbon dioxide gas that builds up in a joint."
As far as what creates the sudden and regular urge to pop your back, Brick says it's usually due to someone experiencing chronic instability or weakness. “Cracking their backs causes relief from a buildup of pressure or tightness, which is essentially the release of gas build up inside the joints," Brick says. "The urge to crack your back really stems from a segment in your spine not moving correctly.”
Is Cracking Your Back Bad For You?
Overall a little back popping is safe, but there are still many reasons why you want the cracking to be in the professionals hands and not your own. “Unlike a physical therapist or a chiropractor who can precisely crack the level of the spine they deem necessary, when you crack your own back, you may be targeting an area already under strain or compensating for other segments from abnormal movement patterns,” Brick explains. “Also, routinely cracking your back can just be another way to prolong or mask the issue, rather than address it.”
Possible Risks & Side Effects
There's a time and a place for popping your back, and it's not when you're by yourself at home. “Self–back cracking can cause injuries such as muscle pulls or even strain tendons and tear ligaments," Sinett says. "You can also over-stretch yourself in an attempt to crack your back. It is even more contraindicated to self-crack your neck. Self-cracking your neck can compromise your blood supply to your head and neck. If your back cracks naturally and unforced during a simple stretch or exercise, Sinett says to enjoy the release. However, the crux is you don’t want to purposefully try to crack your back.
Brick adds, “A decrease in range of motion, pain while cracking, and a numbness or tingling that radiates into your leg after you’ve cracked your back are all signs that you should stop and follow up with a skilled professional.”
How Often Should You Crack Your Back?
If cracking your back is part of your daily routine, now is the time to stop and see a professional. With the potential damage you can do to your ligaments, muscles, and joints means moderation is key.
There are other alternatives to try out if the temptation is getting to you. Instead of popping your joints, try to incorporate stretches and exercises that can help with posture and flexibility. “Stretches that promote movement in all directions can help relieve pressure without cracking your back,” Brick advises. “Yoga positions, such as cobra and child’s pose, both may feel good, as well as a stretch known as the ‘open book.’”
To do the open book stretch, Brick suggests you lie on your side with your hips and knees bent to 90 degrees. Stretch both arms out to one side, so both hands are touching, then turn your upper body to open up your chest while moving your top arm across your body. Hold this pose for two to five seconds. You can do this 10 to 15 times on each side to really stretch out your back.
When to Avoid Cracking Your Back?
A professional (read: not your friend) can make the call as to whether or not cracking your back is appropriate for your specific circumstance. “Ideally, you want to get to the cause of why you feel the need to crack your back," Sinett says. "A chiropractor or physical therapist are both trained to evaluate the need and cause of back problems."
Individuals who should avoid cracking their back altogether includes those who have osteoporosis, spinal cancer, high stroke risk, or any other bone abnormalities.
The Final Takeaway
Popping your back, while tempting, is not safe to try on your own. If you're experiencing discomfort, pay a visit to your physical therapist or chiropractor to find the source of the tension, and in the meantime, try a few recommended stretches to relive the pressure.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Spinal manipulation: what you need to know. Updated July, 2019.
Paige NM, Miake-Lye IM, Booth MS, et al. Association of spinal manipulative therapy with clinical benefit and harm for acute low back pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2017;317(14):1451-1460. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.3086