You may have noticed that some of your friends can crack their necks like other people crack their knuckles. It’s mainly a habit, a way to ease tension. The result of either is the popping of a gas bubble within the joints.
The science explains it: Your joints are encased in capsules that contain synovial fluid. This lubricant is loaded with nutrients. When you crack your neck or your fingers, you stretch that capsule and the pressure lowers within it. This creates a vacuum. This vacuum fills with carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas, and these are released when the bubble is burst.
Why Neck Cracking?
Cracking your neck out of habit is usually done in an effort to relieve some of the tension you carry in your neck. But it can also result in negative side effects, including osteoarthritis and pain. What you should look into instead is doing gentle neck exercises to relieve the pain and tension.
Cracking the neck produces much the same sound as people do when they crack their knuckles. It’s a stress reliever. Some people twist their neck on purpose when they first get up in the morning, or from their work stations. The cracking you hear is sometimes accompanied by a short “pop”. This brings some relief to the neck.
Other people may crack their ankles, lower back and toes. It can be done unconsciously and habitually, and although it may ease tension initially, neck cracking may cause harm, as well.
Neck Cracking Causes
Your neck comprises seven cervical bones known as vertebrae. They are supported within the body by tendons, muscles and ligaments. This provides them with mobility, and supports the neck and head, allowing them to move, bend and twist. Persistent stress, however, may cause your neck to crack when you twist it. This can be harmless initially, but if you begin to feel pain when you crack your neck, consult your physician.
Support from Ligaments
Your ligaments support joints where two bones or more meet. This provides the joint with mobility. Bones sometimes have projections where your ligaments may get stuck. They are let loose when you move your neck. If the ligaments slip from a bone projection surface, this can cause neck cracking.
Synovial fluid surrounds the joints in your neck, lubricating their movement. The fluid can build up gas bubbles. When you crack your neck, the bubbles burst or pop under the increased pressure. This is the cracking sound, and it is a process known as cavitation.
Diseases like arthritis and osteoporosis can cause the joints to become rougher. This causes degenerative changes in the neck bones, and this is what cracks when you move your neck to relieve tension.
Cervical osteoarthritis occurs as you age. After you hit 50 years, the discs between your cervical vertebrae become degenerated and lose their original ability to provide a soft and supportive cushion between your bones.
As the ligaments and their cervical vertebrae gradually thicken, they encroach into the space between your bones. This effectively makes that space smaller and can result in pain and stiffness. It also leads some older people to begin neck cracking.
Previous neck injuries may have occurred to people who were athletes at one time. The neck joint may be injured already and in experiencing more stress, this causes neck cracking when certain movements are made.
Neck Cracking Side Effects
Cracking your neck can result in negative side effects, which include:
Neck cracking done in a habitual manner places a great deal of stress on the joints of the neck, causing ligament stretching. This makes the joints less stable, and bone bridges may form between your vertebrae, which is the body trying to stabilize those joints. This is not normal, however, and can lead to irreversible osteoarthritis.
- Neck Pain
Cracking your neck can eventually decrease the joints’ mobility as time passes. This is caused by the cartilage around the vertebrae wearing down, which leads to all of the degenerative changes that are part of arthritis. The result is neck pain and inflammation, as more and more pressure is applied to the nerves.
Studies have revealed that strokes in people who are 60 years of age or younger may result from habit-forming neck cracking. The repeated cracking may injure your cervical arteries or blood vessels of the neck. This tearing of the arteries may lead to internal bleeding and blood clot formation. These clots may travel to your brain.
Blood clots can block the proper flow of blood to the brain, depriving it of oxygen. The strokes caused by neck cracking can be minor – or fatal. Stroke symptoms include severe headaches, trouble speaking, blurred vision, weakness on one half of your body, confusion and dizziness. If you experience these symptoms, you require emergency treatment.
Relief for People who Crack their Necks
If you only have mild symptoms after neck cracking, you may use one of these easy home remedies:
- Joint Movement
When your neck joints no longer move freely, you may hear grinding noises. Tightness in the muscles of the neck may also cause pain. Stretch your neck gently to ease its muscle tension. Exercising the weakened neck muscles will relieve pain and improve blood flow in the area.
You may often hold the back of your neck in tight positions when you work. This causes a shortening of the muscles and prevents natural neck movement. Exercise the muscles by gently lowering your head forward until your chin touches your chest. Rest your head in that position for as long as you comfortably can. This stretches the back of your neck. Then release it.
- Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) Exercise
Your SCM is a large muscle on each side of your neck that can cause a great deal of pain, if abused. You can stretch the SCM by slowly turning your head as far as you can to one side. This may cause grinding or crunching sounds and minor discomfort. Don’t push it to the point that you feel pain.
If it helps, you may use your hands to help in stabilizing your head while you turn it. Do the same stretching to the opposite side.
When to get Professional Medical Help
If you experience neck cracking side effects like osteoarthritis, neck pain or stroke, you need medical help. Keep your neck stable and don’t make any sudden movements of the head or neck until you get help.