Cracking your joints is a common habit. Many of us do it. We crack our knuckles, fingers, toes, backs, and even our necks. But not everyone does it for the same reason. Some of us do it to release pressure that we’re feeling in our shoulders or neck or as a reaction to stress. Sometimes it’s just a matter of habit.
But is there actually any benefit to cracking your neck? The answer is yes and no. Cracking your neck gently or only cracking it occasionally won’t cause you any harm, but doing it incorrectly, too frequently, or too forcefully can actually cause more pain or discomfort than you felt before you cracked your neck.
Keep reading to learn more about the potential risks, what’s happening when you try to crack your own neck, and when to seek help.
How it works
When you crack your neck or any joint in your body, the capsules around your joint are stretched. These capsules contain fluid, and stretching them allows the fluid to put less pressure on the joint.
As the pressure decreases, the fluids in the joint turn to gas. When the fluid becomes gas, it makes a popping noise. This process is known as either boiling or cavitation, and it usually isn’t harmful.
In the case of your neck, you have several sets of joints called facet joints. These joints are located on each side of your neck. When you crack your neck, the facet joints stretch, which lets fluid spread out in the joint capsule. Once the fluid becomes gas, your neck joints pop. This is what makes neck cracking feel like it’s releasing pressure from your neck area.
An alternate theory suggests that the cracking sound is produced by a bubble being created in the joint.
Although cracking your neck can benefit you in a few ways, you should always talk to your doctor or chiropractor before doing so. They can advise you on whether it’s safe for you and recommend other options for relief.
One study showed that having your neck cracked by a chiropractor can have a positive mental effect. That’s because many people associate cracking sounds with the release of pressure and successful adjustment of a joint.
In some cases, just hearing the cracking sound can make someone feel better, even if no pressure was released or the joint wasn’t even fully or successfully adjusted. This is known as a “placebo effect.”
Cracking your neck also releases endorphins in the area of your neck joints. Endorphins are produced by your pituitary gland and are released by your body to help manage pain. When you crack your neck, endorphins are released in the area. This gives you a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure.
Cracking your neck can be harmful if you don’t do it correctly or if you do it too often.
Cracking your neck too forcefully can pinch the nerves in your neck. Pinching a nerve can be extremely painful and make it difficult or impossible to move your neck. Cracking your neck too hard can also strain the muscles around your joints and the joints themselves. When your muscles or joints become strained, moving your neck can feel like a chore.
Feeling like you need to crack your neck a lot may be a result of hypermobility. This is when your joint has a larger range of motion than normal. When you give in to the urge to crack your neck a lot, the ligaments in your joints can get permanently stretched. This is called perpetual instability. When this happens, your neck joints are more at risk of developing osteoarthritis.
Your neck is home to many important blood vessels. In some cases, cracking your neck too hard or too often can puncture one of these blood vessels. It can also cause blood clotting, which can be dangerous as it blocks blood flow to your brain.
See your doctor
If you crack your neck regularly but don’t feel any sort of constant pain or discomfort, you likely don’t need to seek chiropractic or any other kind of medical care.
But if you’re cracking your neck frequently and never seem to feel satisfied, you may need to get your joints realigned. This can help you feel less of an urge to crack your neck all the time.
You should also see your doctor or chiropractor if:
- you begin to notice any unusual swelling in your neck, as this can be a sign of fluid buildup, injury, or infection
- you start to feel pain in your neck joint, especially chronic pain that doesn’t have any noticeable cause
- your joints are starting to become less mobile because of age or a condition like osteoarthritis
A chiropractor can help manipulate your joints to make sure they’re aligned, which can prevent the feeling of pressure or pain that makes you want to crack your neck.
They can also give you advice on how to change your lifestyle, such as exercising or losing weight, to minimize neck pressure or pain. They may also give you tips on how to treat your neck at home. This can include how to use heat or cold on your neck to reduce pain or swelling.
To find a chiropractor, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist in your network. Your healthcare provider may also provide an online specialist locator so that you can search for your own chiropractor.
Your health insurance may cover a chiropractor, but it’s best to check your insurance to see what the cost of a specialist is. Depending on how much your insurance will cover, seeking a chiropractor can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Neck cracking, especially when it’s done right and not too often, can make you feel good by releasing pressure in your joints. But if you’re doing it a lot and feeling constant pressure or pain, see your doctor or a chiropractor. They can help diagnose and fix any underlying issues that may be contributing to your discomfort.
Asking your doctor or chiropractor about how to crack your neck properly can help you make sure you do it right and prevent any long-term damage to your neck joints and the surrounding tissues, muscles, and nerves.