How to Pop Your Neck: Step 1 - Don’t!

Have you ever experienced a sharp pain in the back of your neck after hours working at a desk, or staring down at your smartphone? If so, it’s likely you’re part of a phenomenon - some experts deem it an epidemic - known as “text neck.”

An epidemic of neck pain

“Text neck” refers to the pain and discomfort, sometimes chronic, that many people are increasingly suffering as a result of the poor posture encouraged by the use of smartphones and other modern digital devices.

As we bend our heads forward and down, increasing pressure and weight is placed on the cervical spine (a.k.a., our necks). Spend too long in this pose, and it’s likely you’ll feel the painful effects, ranging from temporary to chronic: neck stiffness, inflammation, strained muscles, herniated disks, and pinched nerves.1

Some researchers believe text neck posture is even causing shifts in the skeletal structure of young people, in the form of bony spikes on the backs of their necks (the technical term is “external occipital protuberance”).2

In any case, it is clear that widespread technological and lifestyle changes are likely contributing to more frequent occurrence of certain pain conditions, especially neck pain. And this has more people than ever seeking a remedy for their suffering.

What does it mean to “pop” a joint?

Neck adjustment for pain relief, also known as “popping” or “cracking,” is an established treatment in chiropractic medicine, so many neck pain sufferers might think it’s worth trying on themselves. However, just because the move seems familiar does not mean it’s simple or safe for a non-expert to try on their own.

Of course, necks - and the rest of our skeletons - sometimes make cracking or popping sounds in response to movement, unintentionally. Joints can make a variety of noises for a variety of reasons, especially as we age, but the well-known sharp “crack” or “pop” sounds associated with cracking knuckles and chiropractic adjustment are the result of gas bubbles bursting in the synovial fluid (natural lubrication) of joints, in a process also referred to as “cavitation.”3

The gas bubble escaping from the joint isn’t thought to have much physical effect, but the motion of the joint that leads to the popping sound can help get stiff areas mobile again, increasing flexibility and range of motion and helping to relieve pain. This is the concept behind much chiropractic treatment.

Endorphins may also be released during joint popping or cracking that aid in pain relief and cause a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure.4 (Interestingly, the sound itself may also come to be associated with pain relief for many people, as a psychological effect has been documented from the sound alone, even in the absence of joint movement or manipulation).5

Why it’s best to leave neck adjustment to a professional

Neck manipulation can be a helpful technique for alleviating pain - this is why so many people seek out chiropractic care for this problem.

However, trying it yourself carries risks and downsides. Here are some of the reasons you should not make a habit of cracking your own neck:

    •    If you experience chronic or sharp neck pain, it’s important to identify the underlying problem so that you can pursue any prevention methods and the most effective treatment possible for your condition. Simply popping your neck does not offer a comprehensive solution or answers about the root cause of your discomfort.

    •    Necks are sensitive areas of the body, because of the presence of so many crucial and delicate biological structures, including the lower brainstem, spinal cord, arteries, blood vessels, tendons and ligaments, and more.6 Knuckle cracking does not risk interfering with crucial structures the way neck cracking does. For this reason, it’s important to treat the neck with extreme care. Forcing a joint beyond its typical range of motion using your hands - or worse, allowing another untrained person to do it - is risky business in this region of the body.

    •    Habitual neck popping can lead to stretched ligaments, less overall stability in your neck, and potentially osteoarthritis.7

    •    Unskilled neck cracking can puncture blood vessels, potentially causing blood clotting and increasing your risk for stroke.8

    •    Unskilled neck cracking can cause many of the same problems text neck can - such as pinched nerves, muscle strain and pain - exactly the opposite effect you want!

If you think you need to have your neck popped, or you are experiencing neck pain and seeking relief, talk to a doctor or licensed chiropractor about treatments that can help. Neck pain can be caused by problematic “text neck” head posture as well as many other common conditions - such as degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, lifestyle factors, and aging.9

Neck adjustment may be one treatment option, but there may be others as well, including safe methods you can do at home like neck exercises and stretching. Your chiropractic doctor will fully investigate the source of your neck pain and devise a treatment plan appropriate to your condition - a much less risky and more effective option than trying to “pop” your neck yourself.

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References:

1“Text Neck is Becoming an Epidemic and Could Wreck Your Spine”:https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/20/text-neck-is-becoming-an-epidemic-and-could-wreck-your-spine/

2“How Modern Life is Transforming the Human Skeleton”:http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190610-how-modern-life-is-transforming-the-human-skeleton

3“Snap, Crackle, Pop: What You Need to Know About Joint Noises”:https://health.clevelandclinic.org/snap-crackle-pop-need-know-joint-noises/

4“Is There Any Benefit to Cracking Your Neck?”:https://www.healthline.com/health/neck-cracking#benefits

5“Qualitative Study on Chiropractic Patients’ Personal Perception of the Audible Release and Cavitation”:https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1479235411000046?np=y&npKey=bd8748e9d3db730a31312873e0ff66c10a15f283b915d71dbab01679616861ed

6“Is Cracking My Own Neck Safe?”https://www.spineone.com/blog/cracking-neck-safe/

7“Neck Cracking: Is it Safe or Should I Stop?”https://www.healthline.com/health/neck-cracking#risks

8“Neck Cracking - Why Is This Bad For You?":https://www.healthguidance.org/entry/12941/1/neck-cracking-why-is-this-bad-for-you.html

9“Neck Pain and Chiropractic:”