The answer may surprise you.
As a chiropractor, this is probably one of the most frequent questions I am asked. It's usually from a parent who is concerned about their child's annoying habit or someone who says they "just can't get comfortable" unless they crack their own neck.
In either case, the answer is yes and no. It really depends on several factors.
What causes the popping noise when you crack your neck?
The popping noise that you hear is called cavitation. It can occur in most of the joints of our body and, on its own, is completely harmless. The noise is an effect of gases within the lubricating synovial fluid of our joints. As our joints move, these gases can create a popping sound. In addition, many people say they feel a release as the cavitation occurs.
When is it NOT safe to crack your own neck?
If there is pain associated with the "popping" sound or pain associated with the movement of your neck, this would be a red flag that should be evaluated by a chiropractor. In fact, any symptoms (such as dizziness, numbness or tingling, headache, etc.) associated with the movement or "popping" of the neck should always be evaluated by your chiropractor or medical doctor.
You should never use your hands to assist in the forceful movement of your head or neck. Done too forcefully, in the wrong direction, or performed too often, this movement can potentially damage the structures of the neck and spine.
Chiropractors who perform spinal manipulation (which can be associated with a popping sound) have thousands of hours of training and understand the exact amount of force and direction to apply with this type treatment.
When is it safe to crack your own neck?
If you are turning your head or performing a gentle stretch and hear an occasional popping sound without any associated symptoms or discomfort, it is probably safe.
In my article, The Best Exercise for a Stiff Neck, I cover a safe and effective way to keep your neck healthy and feeling great. When performing this exercise you may hear a popping in your neck. As long as it is not associated with any pain or other symptoms, any noise is most likely harmless.
Should I go to a chiropractor?
When it comes to the health and function of the spine, chiropractors are the experts.
If you are having neck pain, headaches, pain radiating into the upper back, shoulders or arms, or are having recurrent numbness or tingling in the arms or hands, a chiropractic evaluation may be warranted. Also, if you feel the constant need to crack your neck due to tight muscles or pressure, a chiropractic evaluation may help to determine why this is happening.
If you simply experience an occasional popping noise when turning your head or stretching (and you are not having any symptoms), you can probably hold off on visiting the chiropractor until your regular spinal check up.
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