Sometimes when people learn that I’m a Chiropractor, they prove how they will never need one by contorting their bodies in all sorts of ways in order to pop every joint on their body. They’ll use their hands, a chair, anything they can to squeeze out that last audible release. I’m always a little taken aback by this. I never know if they’re challenging me to some sort of bone-crunching dance-off or if they’re challenging me to find some leftover restricted joint within them to adjust. Now I know this isn’t the same thing that I do to patients, but rarely do I take on the challenge of educating and informing a person who does this bone rattling dance to a complete stranger. That’s a kind of crazy best left alone. If this were a patient, I would tell him that he may be doing more harm than good in his spine. And that is just what I’m blogging about today to tell you. You can pop your knuckles, you can pop your knee, but don’t go wrenching your neck. Here’s why.
When I tell people they shouldn’t crack their neck, they pop their knuckles and say, “it’s the same thing.” It may feel the same, but no – it’s not. Let’s compare your neck to your knuckle.
A knuckle (metacarpal-phalangeal) joint is pretty simple. You’ve got two bones coming together at one location. The joint allows for multiple motions (up, down, side, round, diagonal) all from the same point of contact. There isn’t much around the joint and it is pretty isolated.
Now take the cervical spine. The cervical spine is composed of seven vertebrae. Each vertebra contains 6-10 joints (depending on what level) that offer different types of motion. In addition, the cervical vertebrae neighbor your spinal cord, discs, nerves that supply your neck and arms, and blood vessels that supply your brain.
When you “pop” a joint, you’re stretching the capsule very quickly and letting it implode on itself. When you pop or crack your knuckles, your moving one joint into one direction. When you crack your neck, you’re moving several joints into different directions. This will be important later.
When you pop your knuckle, you’re able to take full control over the area. But when people crack their neck, there are only a couple of ways they can move it. They can only make contact with so many areas of the neck and they can only bend their hands so much. What will end up happening is you’ll just start putting your hands on the same spots and cracking the same joints in the same direction over and over again. This isn’t good.
When you abuse a joint like that, it becomes hypermobile. It moves into one direction too much. As a result, the neighboring joint become hypomobile. They move less to make up for the stability lost from the now hypermobile joint.
Here’s the pattern. Your neck feels a little stiff so you crack it. It feels good so you keep doing it. You’ll notice that over time, it stops feeling good and your neck becomes even stiffer after you do it. Tension headaches, upper back tightness, and jaw pain may follow.
The joints that became hypomobile are what’s making you feel stiff. So you go to crack your neck. But you can’t reach those joints or contort your own neck in such a way that allows you to move them. You can only get the same old spots that you’ve always been able to get.
What’s the end result of this cycle? Degeneration. Just like your car, uneven wear and tear on joints causes degenerative joint disease (arthritis) which can lead to pain, cervical disc herniations, stenosis, and radiculopathy.
This is why you shouldn’t wrench on your own neck, especially when it’s feeling tight, in order to crack it. It’s best left to the neck-wrenching professionals who can assess the joints, move what needs to be moved, and spare what doesn’t.
As always, if you have any questions, comments, or would like to suggest a topic – drop a line. Like me on Facebookfor regular health tips and updates. Until next time, eat well and move often.
Questions about this post?
Dr. Lell would be happy to answer questions or provide more information discussed in this blog post. Contact him through our Contact Page.