We have all experienced that feeling when rolling our head and stretching our neck: A cracking sound or popping noise. For the most part, this is anatomically expected, and it is similar to when we crack our knuckles out of habit. Some of us do it because we feel a certain relief caused by loosening our joints; many people do not think much about this and simply do it because it is something they have grown accustomed to. Popping, cracking, and stretching sounds are related to a release of oxygen accumulated between joints and ligaments.
The medical term for these cracking sounds is cavitation. If you feel relief when this happens, it is because you are effectively increasing range of motion, and it feels even better when it is caused by physical exercise. If there is no discomfort associated with this physiological process, there is nothing to worry about. In some cases, however, such popping and cracking may call for a chiropractic consultation or treatment.
What Really Happens When Your Neck Cracks
One of the most common causes of neck cracking is cavitation, which essentially boils down to gas bubbles in the synovial fluid escaping a tight space. This fluid is a lubricant similar to the grease that is applied to metal gears so that they operate smoothly and without friction; it is formed by a combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and oxygen, and it is found in our joints, which in case of our necks run along each side.
Think of your neck joints as capsules; when they bubble up with oxygen molecules, they are somewhat constrained with regard to range of motion. When these bubbles are released by the deliberate rolling motion of our necks, but they make a series of popping sounds that may sound like cracking.
When Cracking is Related to Arthritis
With cavitation, the release of oxygen bubbles from your neck joints is not prolonged; it is usually firm, instant, and non-repetitive, meaning that it will take time for these bubbles to pressure up before you can hear them again when cracking your joints. With chronic arthritis, an inflammatory disease, cartilage tissue loses its quality, thereby becoming rough and more likely to make noises during certain movements, but this tends to be a repetitive condition that does not result in an improved range of motion.
When Cracking is Related to the Snapping of Ligaments
Ligaments and tendons are examples of connective tissue that link joints to our bones. This connective tissue can tighten and snap in certain circumstances; when this happens, you will feel a slight displacement or realignment, and a popping sound may also be heard. Such snapping situations are not uncomfortable under normal conditions, but they are more common with certain movements of the knees and shoulders. Stretching and yoga poses can result in this type of cracking noises.
Can Cracking My Neck be Healthy?
This is a yes and no answer. The relieved pressure and ensuing improvement in range of motion are fine when you are engaging in certain yoga asanas, and there is an endorphin effect because the pituitary gland will also come into play. There is also the undeniable satisfaction of carrying out a physical habit, but when you feel that you must crack your neck for the purpose of feeling better because the pressure is bothering you, the best course of action is to check with a chiropractor.
Let’s say a yoga instructor recommends rotating your neck while in cobra pose; he or she will not only watch your form but also your reaction. Any signs of discomfort will prompt your instructor to guide you through a modified pose. If you wake up one morning feeling that your neck is very stiff, a vigorous rotation could make things worse because your muscle tissue will be strained, and there is a chance that you may extend the ligaments too much.
When You Should Ask a Chiropractor About Cracking Your Neck
Strong discomfort upon cracking your neck is the first sign that something may not be right. A snapped tendon will not hurt too much, and the feeling should subside after a few moments, but lingering discomfort is something to worry about. There are three other neck cracking situations that should be checked out by a chiropractic specialist:
- You feel constant pressure after a car accident. It does not matter if the collision was head-on or if you had your seatbelt on; this could be related to cervical strain.
- Your neck feels swollen after cracking or while rolling your neck. Keep in mind that this swelling may not be visible at all; however, if you sense an edema that you cannot touch, this could be a symptom of other neck issues.
- Cracking is persistent and occurs each and every time your neck reaches a certain position. This is not normal and may eventually result in discomfort.
How Your Chiropractor Can Help With Neck Pain
Whenever you notice any of the symptoms described above, there is a chance that your joints have become misaligned for various reasons. Patients who feel that they no longer have adequate mobility of their necks will often think that cracking will bring them relief, and this is when visiting a chiropractor is a smart move.
Chiropractors manipulate joints with the intent of bringing them back into proper alignment; this is something that you will never accomplish with neck rolling and cracking alone. As previously mentioned, strong cracking may even worsen the condition because you could end up overexerting your ligaments and muscle tissue, thus making joint misalignment even more likely, You may or may not hear cracking when the chiropractor is working on your neck; this is not relevant, what matters is that your joints are back in the place they should be so that they no longer bother you.
In addition to rotating your neck and positioning your spine in a way that causes your neck joints to align, your chiropractor may also recommend other therapeutic activities to reduce the buildup of oxygen bubble in your facet joints. You will certainly be asked about physical activities and habits that you do not realize could be increasing your risk of joint misalignment.
In the end, rolling your neck to relieve synovial fluid pressure is safe; should you happen to hear cracking or popping, this is normal as well. If you feel comfortable after cracking your neck, you may continue to do so from time to time, preferably in connection with stretching exercises, but you should stop doing it when it causes pain instead of bringing relief; this is when you will need to consult a chiropractor.