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When it comes to bad habits, the little things we do can range from irritating and innocuous (like 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—whether it's your back, neck, or knuckles. But, is it really that big of a deal? We spoke with two chiropractors to find out. Keep reading to see what they have to say about cracking your neck.
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.”
Meet the Expert
Jay Dvorsky, DC, is a certified chiropractor in Beverly Hills, California.
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.”
What's the Worst That Can Happen When Cracking Your Neck?
According to the University of Southern California's Keck Medicine blog (which is written by doctors that work there), "While it’s probably okay to occasionally self-crack your neck or back, don’t have a friend do it for you, because they could apply too much pressure and cause injury."
Like many other forms of at-home self-care, NYC-based chiropractor Jeff Rosenberg says that cracking your own neck comes with a set of risks, though they're rare. “For starters, cracking your own neck forcefully can aggravate some of the nerves and discs in your neck, especially if they are inflamed [which could ultimately lead to more pain]," he says, noting that the next risk could be hypermobility. "Hypermobility occurs when ligaments have been repeatedly overstretched," he explains. "Overstretched ligaments lead to instability, which can accelerate osteoarthritis."
Meet the Expert
Jeff Rosenberg, DC, is a certified chiropractor in New York City.
What's more, in extremely rare cases, he (and the doctors at Keck Medicine) note that cracking your neck can lead to a brain stem stroke. (In fact, in April 2019 a 23-year-old paramedic gave herself a stroke by cracking her neck—though, the American Council on Science and Health reiterate that it was likely a freak accident). As such, even if (read: when) you seek out professional assistance, it's important to let your chiropractor know if you have an increased risk of stroke. Better safe than sorry, right?
What's the Best Way to Alleviate Neck Pressure?
As Rosenberg, who specializes in low-velocity Cox spinal decompression, puts it, "Just like with any health condition, if you’d like it done correctly the first time, you’re better off going to a professional who specializes in the area of your chief complaint."
As such, if you start to feel the urge to crack your neck, consider dialing up a chiropractor instead. And when looking for a doctor to help you with your discomfort, consider checking out Rosenberg's specialty.
"The difference between most other chiropractic techniques and Cox spinal decompression is that it’s very gentle," Rosenberg explains. Unlike most chiropractic techniques that require a high-velocity thrust, which could make someone anxious to see a chiropractor in the first place, not to mention cause tension and anxiety during the actual treatment, he says that Cox spinal decompression utilizes a low-velocity rhythmical movement that's less likely to cause added unease. "In addition to aligning the spine, Cox spinal decompression has been proven to reduce the pressure of herniated discs, which can cause a wide array of symptoms ranging from headaches and neck pain to numbness, lower back pain, and sciatica," Rosenberg says. What's more, given the slower, gentler approach to tension relief, he says that "the chance of having a stroke from the technique is eliminated due to the fact that there isn’t a high-speed thrust on the arteries located in the neck." In fact, he shares that no reported cases of stroke from a Cox spinal decompression have occurred to date.
The Final Takeaway
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.
Up next: Discover whether or not it's bad to crack your back.