You’ve been hunched over a computer all day and your body seriously aches. When you finally get up from your chair, you give yourself a nice, long stretch—plus a couple of twists at the waist to crack your spine. Ah, that satisfying “pop” feels so good. But, um, is it bad to crack your back? We tapped Dr. Rahul Shah, board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon in Vineland, New Jersey for the answer.
What actually happens to your back when you crack it?
“When one ‘cracks’ one’s back, oftentimes it comes from twisting from one side to another,” says Dr. Shah. And when this happens, you might hear a ‘pop’ (you know, kind of like the sound your Rice Krispies make when milk gets poured over them). “This ‘cracking’ of the back is generated from the individual bones in the back (which stack up on another like Jenga blocks) shifting within their hinges (i.e., joints) as they stack on top of one another.” In other words, nothing is actually “cracking” or breaking. Phew. In fact, Dr. Shah tells us that the same thing happens when you crack your knuckles—the bones in the hand move about their hinges to create a sound and release pressure that may be built up in the joint.
And why does cracking your back feel so good?
While we don’t have a strict scientific understanding of why cracking feels good, Dr. Shah says that, in general, gently shifting of our bones where they hinge seems to release pressure that built up in the joints in the back. This leads to temporary relief of stiffness. Keyword: Temporary.
Is it bad to purposefully crack your back?
Sorry, friends—Dr. Shah says you should go easy on the back cracking. “The continual purposeful cracking of the back may be associated with increased strain at the different joints in the back,” she explains. Translation? It’s fine to crack your back on occasion but don’t go overboard (“the line between ‘enough cracking’ and ‘too much cracking’ is a difficult one to define and manage,” says Dr. Shah). “When one does too much cracking of the back or neck, there are reports of acceleration of the wear and tear of the joint (i.e., hinges) requiring additional intervention including surgical intervention. As such, I would discourage the continual purposeful cracking of the back.”
Bottom line: The occasional crack is fine, but don’t make a habit out of it. (Want to relieve a stiff back? Try one of these stretches for back pain instead.)