Is Cracking Your Back All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

Cracking your back: We all do it, but should we? Our experts tell you what’s making that sound and how to crack safely.

Chances are we’ve all done it. You get up from bed or from the couch and lean back, waiting for that satisfying sound—your spine going snap, crackle, pop. Sometimes it feels good. Sometimes, not so good. Some of us may even go so far as to have a friend help us get that satisfying feeling. But the truth is it’s not a great idea. Cracking your back without professional help can lead to problems or worsen issues you may not realize are already there.

People in yoga class practicing asana that leads to cracking backWhat's really going on when you crack your back? Our experts are here to tell you.

What is That Sound Anyway?

“’Cracking’ the back typically refers to a specific sound the neck or back can make with certain movements,” explains Wesley Bronson, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at The Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. “The joints in the back naturally contain fluid and gas, and with motion, they can create a cracking sound as different pressures are exerted upon on them. This is typically the cracking sound we hear. “

“These sounds, called joint cavitation, are normal and caused by the exchange of gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide around the joint,” says Sherry McAllister, DC, a chiropractor and president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress in Folsom, CA. Bubbles or spaces can form in the synovial fluid that surrounds our joints, including the ones in the spine. Those spaces make an audible sound when a change of pressure—cavitation—causes the gases to be released. The gases, such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, are naturally present in our bodies.

Dr. McAllister explains further. “Cracking is a fairly salacious term, as it could not be further from the truth. A DC mobilizes the joints carefully through an adjustment using his/her hands or specific instrument to increase range of motion and stability to the spine and extremities.”

When such adjustments and manipulations aren’t done by professionals, problems can occur, including loss of strength and soft tissue swelling. When it’s done the right way, those problems are prevented and other common issues, like pain and tightness in the neck and back, can be helped.

Professional Spine Manipulation and Adjustments

“’Getting cracked’ and having a manipulation provided as an intervention for you is relatively safe and the literature supports that,” says Christopher Patrick, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy at AOS Orthotics in Shelton, CT. “Times when these techniques are not safe is when they are not performed by a trained professional. This can lead to excessive force being utilized or bringing the joints to excessive ranges of motion that can potential cause harm if performed incorrectly.”

Dr. Bronson explains that even if the sounds when you crack your own back sound and even feel ok, there’s no proof that they are. “Patients should be careful,” he cautions. “Spines can make sounds for other reasons. Age-related arthritis can create a crunching type sound with motion—known as crepitus—or a ligament or tendon can rub over a bone spur, creating a different sound. These noises are generally not problematic, but repeated attempts to reproduce them could cause inflammation or pain, especially if the same sound can be created with a specific movement repeatedly. Certainly, if a sound is associated with pain, I would recommend against attempts to create it.”

Why Crack Your Back

The first reason most people seek this kind of help is because they are having back problems, like pain or weakness. Patients may decide to see a chiropractor on their own or they may be referred to one by a different treating doctor.

“I routinely work with chiropractors to help patients recover from their spinal conditions,” says Dr. Bronson. “A chiropractor performs spinal manipulation in a safe, controlled manner. They are familiar with what sounds may be safe and can provide relief of back or neck pain. They represent a great addition to a multidisciplinary team involved in the nonoperative management of many spinal conditions.”

Dr. McAllister explains why chiropractic care is so helpful to patients. “All DCs are trained to diagnose and treat neuro-musculoskeletal conditions. In the diagnosis of a patient, the DC will ascertain through history and physical exam what treatment is best for the patient.”

It’s also a way to avoid taking pain medication, which can be dangerous and addictive. “There is an increasing body of scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of adjustments to relieve back pain and other types of musculoskeletal pain, as well as to improve function and mobility,” Dr. McAllister continues. “Leading scientific journals such as The Lancet and the World Health Organization Bulletin have also urged healthcare providers to first consider drug-free pain management approaches, such as chiropractic care, for low back pain… Too often, pharmaceutical options such as opioids are given initially and that can lead to a host of unfortunate adverse events.”

It is also a good idea to work with a chiropractor in addition to other health professionals, such as orthopedic specialists and physical therapists. “[Chiropractic] techniques are effective and used often but are only a tool in the toolkit,” says Dr. Patrick. “They will decrease pain and provide temporary increases in mobility but it is vital to follow up this with further mobility and stability work to maintain the gains. If not, overtime you will revert back to your prior starting place and making no further gains in pain reduction or lasting mobility… I suggest you discuss with a provider to see what would be the best approach for you.”

If you are feeling the need to crack your back regularly, or are having other issues with pain and tightness, talk to your doctor to see if chiropractic adjustments and manipulation are right for you. Ensuring that you have the right diagnosis will lead to the best treatment plan so you can get cracking on living a stronger life.

 

Updated on: 04/21/21
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