When it comes to bad habits, the little things we do can range from irritating and innocuous (e.g., chewing gum loudly) to downright life-threatening (like texting while driving). In between, there’s a full gamut of activities that may be pleasurable in the short term but not so great in the long term. For many, a common habit is “cracking” one’s joints—be they back, neck, or knuckles. But is it really bad to crack your neck? Here’s what you need to know.
Is It Bad to Crack Your Neck?
First off, it’s important to understand what’s actually happening when you crack your neck. That “popping” or “snapping” sound you hear comes from the movement of tendons and is accompanied by the release of gases like nitrogen, oxygen, and CO2 that are present in your joints’ synovial fluid (which cushions and lubricates them). But when you crack your joints, something else gets released as well: endorphins.
According to Beverly Hills–based chiropractor Jay Dvorsky, “When a vertebra is out of place, it’s generally by a couple of millimeters. When you adjust a joint, it moves and releases endorphins—the body’s natural painkillers—which feels really good. Unfortunately, it feels so good that individuals will try to adjust themselves in order to get that release, and then they keep going back to it to replicate that feeling.”
While this may not pose a major threat for joints like the knuckles (studies have shown that knuckle-cracking might not even have much impact on osteoarthritic conditions), the risks are far more serious when it comes to the neck. As Dvorsky notes, “The problem with the neck is that the brain stem is right there, so if, for instance, you get into an accident and the ligaments aren’t holding, you can really be in trouble.”
Simply put, it’s a bad idea to crack your neck if you’re doing it yourself or working with someone who isn’t properly trained. While it may feel fantastic at the moment, the habit can lead to serious issues down the road. “The problem is that there are ligaments and tendons connected to muscles that hold your head in place and help it stay stable,” says Dvorsky, “So if you move the segment too much, these can become weakened and lose their integrity over time.”
This damage can become more pronounced as we grow older and can surface during a car accident, sports injury, or fall. Cracking your neck (a part of the body that essentially contains the hub of the central nervous system) can create lasting damage, particularly if it’s a routine habit. Ultimately, adjusting your neck can benefit spinal alignment and overall health, but is an activity best left to the professionals.