Self-Chiropractic — Is It Safe to Crack Your Back?
Self-Chiropractic — Is It Safe to Crack Your Back?
There’s something magical about the feeling of popping your back — or any joint, for that matter. When you can feel — and hear — that release of tension, the relief is undeniable.
Whether you unexpectedly achieve the pop or purposely contort yourself to hear the desired crackle, that sound stirs curiosity. What causes that cracking noise in our joints, anyway? And is it OK to crack your own back?
As the anchor of your body, your spine has a crucial job — protecting your spinal column and supporting the core of your body. Let’s dive into the reasons your backbone can crack and dispel some of the myths about joint popping. Read on to learn more about the benefits and possible downsides to self-adjusting your back.
Why Does Your Back Crack?
It may come as a surprise, but doctors aren’t entirely sure why our backs snap and crackle when we stand up quickly or intentionally move to pop our spinal joints.
While the reason for back cracking is a bit of a mystery, a few leading hypotheses explain what might be causing that recognizable sound.
1. Sudden Collapse of Existing Gas Bubbles
The prevailing theory points to the sound caused by pockets of gas collapsing and releasing from your joints. Your joints contain a lubricant called synovial fluid, which provides nutrients to the cartilage. Cartilage is a crucial player in your body’s ability to move in a smooth, frictionless motion.
Pressure on your joints builds up, creating pockets of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen. When you apply force to your spine, these air bubbles of dissolved gases can shift and cause a popping sound — called cavitation — which you know as the song of your back cracking. This gas is observable in MRIs and X-rays, and surrounding tissue absorbs it after emission.
2. Creation of New Gas-Filled Cavities
A 2015 peer-reviewed study examining the cause of sounds emitted from joints confirms that synovial fluid gases contribute to joint cracking, yet offers a different view about when the actual crack occurs in the process. MRI observations showed knuckles cracking at the precise moment when a gas-filled cavity emerges — meaning the popping sound emits during the joint stretching when the cavity is brand-new, not when the air bubble collapses.
3. Shifting Ligaments, Tendons and Joints
A less subscribed-to theory states tight ligaments create a snapping sound as they move in and out of their original position, pulling across the surface of cartilage, bone, tendons or other ligaments.
4. Bone Grinding
When the cartilage surrounding a spinal joint deteriorates, it can cause popping or grinding sounds. Without cartilage protection, joint bones rub together and produce a noisy sound similar to a crack.
Why Does It Feel Good to Crack Your Back?
Approximately one-third of American employees work in jobs that contribute to an increased risk of developing lower back pain or other back disorders. It comes as no surprise that sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, combined with poor posture, can lead to an achy back.
Tightness and tension build up in the muscles surrounding your spine throughout the day. You can try to counteract the effect of prolonged sitting with frequent stretching, posture-improving exercises, ergonomic chairs and ideal desk setups. Still, nothing quite compares to that back-relieving sensation of a deep stretch and audible crack.
Beyond feeling incredible, a quality back adjustment provides several physical benefits:
- Your range of motion increases.
- When you stretch your back to encourage a crack, clenched muscles loosen and lengthen.
- The release of pressure stimulates blood flow and delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscles.
- Back cracking releases pain-managing endorphins around the adjusted area.
And that stress release you feel may be more than physical relief. A 2011 study demonstrated that chiropractic patients attribute a therapeutic value to the cracking noise itself, especially when a professional chiropractor makes the adjustment. Psychologically, your brain may associate the sound of popping your back with a positive feeling of tension release. The combined physiological and psychological effect of joint cracking results in you ultimately feeling better.
Possible Risks of Self-Cracking Your Back
Generally speaking, back cracking is safe. However, the practice is not entirely risk-free. A 2017 study of manual spine treatment suggests that while self-cracking side effects are usually harmless, there is a possibility of unfavorable outcomes.
Possible risks of popping your back include the following.
- Headache: While back adjustments can improve migraines and severe headache conditions, the release of pent-up pressure can lead to a sudden influx of chemical signals, causing a temporary headache.
- Discomfort: Intense joint manipulation can cause lingering soreness.
- Inflammation: Back cracking can aggravate swelling and lead to stiffness.
- Muscle strain: Overstretching while trying to achieve that desired crack may result in strained or torn muscles around your back.
- Pinched nerves: A rapid or intense adjustment can pinch a spinal column nerve. Nerve injuries are excruciating and can limit mobility if left untreated.
- Hypermobility: When you move a joint past its normal range of motion too frequently, you can overstretch the ligaments and make them too weak to hold the joint in the correct position.
- Slipped disc: In rare circumstances, self-cracking your back could cause a herniated disc or exacerbate an existing disc injury by shifting it into the wrong position.
- Stroke: While rare, spinal manipulation does carry a small risk of inducing a stroke. Aggressive upper back and neck adjustments may cause cervical artery dissection — dangerous tears in the neck arteries that can lead to blood clotting, aneurysms or strokes.
Is It Bad to Crack Your Back Every Day?
Do you find yourself cracking your back more than once every day to try to alleviate the discomfort? If so, it may be time to contact a professional to identify the underlying causes and determine a treatment plan. Many of the risks associated with self-adjustments relate to repetitive motions. When cracking your joints, it’s essential to do so in moderation.
Instead of daily back cracks, incorporate more stretching into your routine. Focus on exercises designed to increase flexibility like yoga, and work on improving your posture. The best way to avoid potential crack-related damage to joints and muscles is to prevent overdoing it and instead rely on trained spine treatment specialists to adjust you correctly.
Why You Should Only Let Licensed Professionals Adjust Your Spine
You may use your kitchen sink every day, yet when a pipe is about to burst, you call a licensed plumber to fix it. While you use your back daily, you likely don’t understand your spinal anatomy, the location of facet joints, how ligaments work or how to correct spinal issues. Trying to fix your back without trained knowledge of how it should work may provide temporary relief, but it won’t give you the same results as professional care.
Due to possible risks of self-cracking, you may wish to see a certified spine specialist to address your back. A licensed spine professional can:
- Use comprehensive diagnostic techniques to pinpoint your pain source.
- Find anatomical abnormalities.
- Recognize potential health risks.
- Locate problems with your spinal alignment.
- Determine a safe, proper course of treatment that is right for you.
Other Forms of Self-Chiropractic Care
Do you crack your fingers? If so, you’re not alone — at least 54% of the population admits to cracking their knuckles regularly. People often use self-chiropractic care to pop their backs, necks, knuckles and other joints.
Many people repeatedly pop their joints to seek relief from pressure throughout the day. Others treat popping as a reflex, similar to nail-biting. Whatever the reason, the act of cracking some joints is an ingrained habit for many people.
If joint cracking alters the shape of your joint or causes pain and swelling, these are signs that something may be wrong, and you should contact a joint specialist right away.
Does Cracking Your Joints Increase the Risk of Arthritis?
You’ve likely encountered these myths about joint cracking. The good news is, medical experts agree that these rumors are inaccurate.
- Stunted growth: Since popping your back releases gas between the vertebrae, some people think the action can limit growth. This idea is false. Growth happens at the epiphyseal plate in longitudinal bones, which has nothing to do with cavitation.
- Arthritis: The belief that self-cracking will lead to arthritis is probably the most common joint-related myth. While overdone self-adjustments can lead to swelling or discomfort, there is no medical correlation between cracking and arthritis or joint enlargement.
For years, you may have heard ominous warnings from parents and teachers that cracking your joints will lead to arthritis, despite research pointing to the contrary. While it’s unclear as to when or why this myth started circulating, one thing is clear — the research proves it isn’t true.
One person decided to put the myth to the test over five decades. Like many of us, Dr. Donald Unger experienced chastisement from numerous authority figures about the supposed dangers of knuckle popping. And so, borne out of curiosity, Unger chose to literally take science into his hands and conducted the ultimate personal experiment. For 50 years, he dedicated himself to popping the knuckles in his left hand at least twice a day, while leaving his right hand alone as a control.
In the end, there was no apparent difference in the knuckles of Unger’s left and right hands, nor was there any relationship between the cracking and arthritis development. And subsequent studies continue to verify that regardless of whether you crack your joints, your chances of developing arthritis are virtually the same.
Should You Avoid Cracking Your Back?
Even if you experience no adverse reactions when cracking your back, it is best to limit how often you do so. Repetitive cracking of the same area may leave the joint without adequate recovery time to return to its original position.
If you experience any of the following symptoms when cracking your back, cease adjustments and contact a medical professional.
- Sharp, stinging pain: Do you feel intense, sudden pain — or perhaps lingering, throbbing pain? These are warning signs that your joint may be pinched or fractured.
- Locked joints: Is it difficult to bend or move quickly? If your spine feels stiff or locks in place with specific motions, your joint structures may have deterioration.
- Constant cracking during regular movement: Do you sound like snapping twigs every time you get out of your chair? A joint that regularly grinds with standard action can indicate injury. You may have damaged cartilage, deterioration or bone-on-bone friction.
- Weakness, numbness or tingling in extremities: If you feel prickliness or notice an unusual loss of strength in your arms or legs, these symptoms may point to a more severe condition.
Avoid self-cracking if you are recovering from an injury or have any of the following spinal conditions.
Spinal Conditions That Require More Attention Than Chiropractic Treatment
While chiropractic is a successful therapeutic approach for many back issues, some conditions require additional or alternative treatments. If you have or exhibit signs of any of the following conditions, leave your treatment to the professionals.
- Whiplash: When a sports-related or vehicular accident throws the head backward and forward, the resulting trauma can damage muscles, discs and joints.
- Dislocations: Injuries or other degenerative conditions can move a backbone or neck bone out of its usual position. To prevent further harm from an attempted self-adjustment, only allow a trained doctor or chiropractor to move a dislocated bone back into place.
- Spinal stenosis: A narrowed spinal canal puts pressure on the spinal cord, causing lower back pain, neck pain and numbness in the extremities.
- Osteoporosis: This disease occurs when the body makes too little bone or loses bone over time, creating brittle, fracture-prone bones.
- Fractured vertebrae: These vertebral compression fractures can occur due to osteoporosis, injury or cancer.
- Spinal arthritis: Heredity, age and other health conditions can be risk factors for various forms of spinal arthritis, including psoriatic arthritis, osteoarthritis and spondyloarthritis.
- Spinal cancer: Tumor pressure on the spinal cord can cause pain, numbness or paralysis.
- Herniated discs: This condition is prevalent — between five and 20 cases out of 1,000 adults occur each year. Also known as slipped or prolapsed discs, a disc herniation happens when the cushioning between your spinal vertebrae shifts to a location outside its regular position.
- High risk of stroke: While it’s a rare risk, aggressive spinal manipulation could cause vertebral artery dissection and form a blood clot that could lead to stroke.
- Spine curvature disorders: Lordosis curves the spine inward at the lower back. Kyphosis severely rounds the upper back. Scoliosis creates an S-shaped curve in the spine. Individuals with spine curvature disorders can experience pain, poor posture, stiffness or imbalance.
- Tailbone pain: Painful inflammation at the base of your spine caused by strain or injury is called coccydynia.
Beyond chiropractic care, certified spine specialists can provide the following comprehensive techniques to safely treat special conditions.
- Neuromodulation therapy: A health provider can stimulate affected body parts to reduce discomfort.
- Endoscopic surgery: This minimally invasive procedure offers a faster recovery time than traditional surgery.
- Pain management: Doctors can prescribe medication in conjunction with other treatments.
- Regenerative medicine: Injections and stem cell therapy can stimulate new cellular growth.
- Physical therapy: Physiological therapies can strengthen muscles and aid mobility.
- Surgery: If a long-term pain solution is unachievable by other treatment options, surgery can provide relief and prevent further adverse effects.
Contact Spine Institute of North America to Treat Persistent Back Pain
Do you suffer from neck or back pain? We understand that spinal pain at any level can affect your quality of life, and we can help. Our physicians provide an environment of concern and honesty to discuss your pain and formulate a path to recovery together.
At the Spine Institute of North America, we strive to relieve your pain and revive your life. We are leading practitioners of state-of-the-art therapies, including endoscopic spine procedures, spinal cord stimulation and other progressive techniques. Contact us to learn more or set up an appointment to start your back treatment journey today!