Is Cracking Your Neck Harmful?
Massage for Muscle Tension Relief
By W. David Bond
This article is from the Summer 2012 issue of Body Sense magazine.
If you find you are frequently popping, twisting, or applying torque to your cervical spine in order to elicit a little "crack" to relieve tension, then you are a chronic self-manipulator.
Self-manipulation is the application of a quick self-administered twisting or thrusting motion directed to the area of complaint (such as the neck, back, or fingers) in an attempt to relieve some joint discomfort. And although it probably isn't possible to hurt yourself seriously (i.e., cause a fracture or stroke, unless there is an underlying disease pathology), there is potential for injury. Be advised you are probably doing more harm than good.
Self-manipulation can easily become over-manipulation syndrome, which is a condition where repetitive, forceful, and usually unnecessary manipulation causes the ligaments to become loose and nonsupporting. In response to the laxity of the ligaments, the surrounding muscles must become tighter in order to stabilize the joint. That is when your neck or other body parts feel tension, prompting you to want to crack them.
The cracking noise comes from taking the joint beyond the normal, passive range of motion, causing a separation of the joint surfaces. This creates a temporary vacuum, and gas that is normally saturated within the joint fluid expands suddenly into the vacuum and makes a "pop." When the popping is elicited, then the muscles are being stretched. Then, they get to relax, with the pain generally going away as the pain fibers get sedated by endorphins.
Initially, when you self-manipulate, you get considerable pain relief, but over time you lose any temporary gains. Relief becomes less the more you do it, until there is practically no pain relief at all, despite nearly constant attempts at cracking. It also may take some time to be able to get the joint to release another pop; however, the person may continue to try to manipulate harder and with considerable, increasing force. This can also result in serious injury if the neck is in hyperextension while a forceful torque and thrust is applied. In any case, the tension continues to build until there's the urge to self-manipulate again.
A cycle of over-manipulation addiction is created. There are also implications when the self-manipulator can easily get one side of the neck to release and not the other side. This builds up a joint laxity asymmetry around the spine, and may create one-sided pain syndromes.
Treatment options begin with the cessation of all manipulation of the joint or joints. If you are able to stop completely, please be aware that there will be a significant period of discomfort lasting for some time, depending on how long you were self-manipulating.
Eventually it resolves--usually in three weeks to two months. Since the pain is coming from the soft tissues surrounding the neck, massage is the invaluable treatment to gently stretch the neck muscles, release the muscle tension, and resolve the inflammation. The best advice is when you get that urge to crack your neck, it's your body telling you that you need a massage.
W. David Bond, DC, DNS, DAAPM, has been a practicing chiropractor in Southern California since 1988. He is the founder and director of the Essential Chiropractic Center in Sherman Oaks and specializes in chiropractic pain management and soft tissue/ myofascial treatments. Contact him at www.essentialchiropracticcenter.com.