Is It Bad to Crack Your Neck? (Quick Answer: It Depends)
So you’ve been hunched over your laptop for the past eight hours. As you shift in your seat, you notice that your neck is stiff, so you massage it to relieve the tension. But unfortunately, this doesn’t work, so you resort to cracking your neck and, thankfully, that seems to do the trick. But in just a matter of minutes, you can feel that stiffness coming back. What do you do next? Try a few stretches? Or, better yet, another quick crack of the neck? Or is it actually bad to crack your neck? Here’s what you need to know.
1. What happens when you crack your neck?
On each side of your neck, there are several joints (known as facet joints). Each of them has a capsule that contains fluid and gas, which allow your joints to move smoothly, and every time you crack your neck, these joints are stretched and gas bubbles get released. This is what causes that loud popping noise and why you might feel a release in tension when this happens. Keep in mind, though, that these cracking sounds don’t necessarily mean you’ve made a successful neck adjustment.
2. What are the benefits of cracking your neck?
It turns out that cracking your neck can do much more than relieve stiffness. One study has shown that the practice can have a therapeutic effect because people associate the cracking noise with a “physical feeling of release.” Also, according to Dr. Kevin Wafer, a chiropractor who practices at CORE Chiropractic in Texas, the body releases a feel-good hormone called endorphins when you pop your neck. However, the feeling is only a temporary fix. He explained, “The problem is endorphins only last in the bloodstream for 15 to 20 minutes. After that you start to feel the need to pop your neck again. So, you’re not correcting the problem at all, you are just using endorphins to cover the problem temporarily.”
3. Can cracking your own neck be harmful?
In short, it depends. If done incorrectly or too often, cracking your own neck can lead to some serious complications. For instance, if you crack your neck every day, multiple times a day, the ligaments in your neck’s joints can get stretched permanently. Aside from weakening the ligaments and tendons, this can also lead to neck instability and increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis (when the protective cartilage that pads the ends of your bones deteriorate down over time).
Additionally, forcefully cracking your neck can lead to damaged connective tissue, blood clotting and pinching of the nerves, which makes it extremely painful to move your neck at all. But the risks don’t end there.
4. Is it true that cracking your neck can cause a stroke?
The verdict is still out on whether or not it can be a direct cause, but research has shown that it could increase someone’s risk of having a stroke. According to study at Baylor University Medical Center, cracking your neck can put your vertebral arteries at risk for “aneurysm formation and/or dissection,” which can lead to an acute stroke.
But before you freak out, it’s worth noting that most experts are still unsure about the link between neck-cracking and having a stroke, especially since there are conflicting studies out there. For example, in 2016, a study revealed that people who visited a chiropractor for neck pain had an “extremely low” incidence of stroke. Also, there are typically a number of factors that play a role when it comes to the causes of a stroke—and neck-cracking is definitely not high on the list.
5. Does it lead to arthritis?
Although many people have claimed that cracking your neck can cause arthritis, there is no evidence or research to back up the claim.
6. Are there safer alternatives to cracking your neck?
Fortunately, there are other options for relieving neck tension besides neck popping. For immediate relief, consider stretching your neck on each side, holding each position for at least 15 to 20 seconds. But more importantly, be mindful of your posture throughout the day—especially if you’re used to sitting for long periods of time.
Dr. Sebastian Kverneland, a Los Angeles-based chiropractor who chatted with us back in May, explained, “While sitting in unergonomic spaces (as many are in these days) we all have a tendency to lean our head forward, especially while on our phones. The more forward your head sits, the more stress is placed on your neck. For every inch that your head protrudes forward from its normal alignment, you add up to an extra ten pounds of force on your neck.”
To combat these harmful practices, Dr. Kverneland suggested taking breaks that don’t involve sitting. He continued, “My main advice [is to] take breaks from sitting by scheduling standing and walking breaks (or walk when on phone calls), stretch the neck and back daily, sit properly when on your computer and make sure your gaze looks straight ahead (and not down) when looking at your computer or phone.”
7. When is the best time to see a doctor?
If you’ve been cracking your neck sparingly and you don’t feel any soreness or discomfort, then you probably don’t need an expert. However, if you constantly crack your neck and still struggle with symptoms like chronic neck pain, neck swelling and migraines, the safest bet is to seek professional help. With the help of a chiropractor, you can learn the underlying causes, get necessary adjustments and receive advice for how to treat your condition at home.