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Neck Cracking

Neck Cracking

The neck is a crucial structure that provides support to the head. As you know, the head houses the CPU of the body, i.e., the brain. Thus, the role of the neck is understandable. Though submerged in the cerebrospinal fluid, the brain has its own weight. The tiresome job of holding the head and brain makes the cervical spine prone to injury and strain.

Neck stiffness is common in individuals with head jobs. To release this pressure, many individuals try stretching it. Stretching of the tight muscles and ligaments has many benefits, including the release of pressure and improvement in blood flow. Sometimes, this stretching leads to the production of cracking sounds or popping sounds. This phenomenon of cracking/grinding sounds is known as “neck cracking.”

It is similar to knuckle cracking, which many people do in their daily routine. Many people across the globe crack their necks to looses a stiff neck. According to crackers, neck cracking provides helps relieve pain and improves the range of motion of the joint.

You can experience neck cracks when visiting a chiropractor. The scientific term for neck cracking is joint cavitation. Many people and chiropractors believe that the snapping sound imparts a feeling of satisfaction among the patients. The spinal adjustment and the cracking sound are believed to reduce neck stiffness.

Cause Of Neck Cracks: Gas In The Neck Joints?

You might have tried cracking joints yourself. If you were shocked by the loud cracking noise on twisting your own neck, there is nothing to be worried about (if there are no other symptoms!). We know you just tried to remove the stiff neck from work.

Neck cracking results from the release of trapped gas bubbles within your joints. A neck crack does not mean you have broken your bones or joints. To understand the process of neck cracking, you first need to know about facet joints.

Facet Joints

The cervical spine is composed of facet joints that connect the bones of the spine. They provide structural stability to the neck while allowing you to move it backward and forwards. It is a synovial joint, which is filled with synovial fluid to reduce friction as the joint moves.

Like all synovial joints, the facet joints are surrounded by a protective covering of soft tissues (connective tissue), i.e., the facet joint capsule. In addition to synovial fluid, you will find gas (nitrogen) in the facet joints. These gas bubbles get trapped inside the joint.

The bubbles release when you stretch your neck joint, creating a popping sound. The intensity of the cracking noise correlates with the amount of gas inside. The gas contains oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Contrary to common beliefs, this tribonucelation (release of nitrogen bubbles) does not cause pain relief or improvement in joint function.

Benefits Of Neck Cracking

Based on people experiencing pain, neck cracking is their way out to eliminate neck pain. However, there are no scientific studies to support the claim. The popping and cracking sounds produced during cracking are similar to the ones heard during spinal manipulation.

One study claims that the stimuli (cracking noise) from neck cracks help lower pain by activating the neuropeptide-expression pathways. This activation releases endorphins into the blood. Endorphins are endogenous chemicals that bring about anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.

It was found in a study that neck-cracking sounds induce the release of oxytocin, cortisol, and neurotensin. Thus, you can expect to experience a fall in pain intensity due to neuropeptide expression not due to the release of gas bubbles but due to the production of sounds.

What Is Neck Crepitus?

Neck crepitus is a condition characterized by a grinding sensation accompanied by the production of popping and grinding sounds. In some cases, neck crepitus is a temporary condition and goes away on its own. However, the condition needs medical attention if it becomes a chronic or repetitive issue.

Neck crepitus arises mostly due to jont issues. It can be the outcome of chronic cartilage and bone damage. In rare cases, crepitus is the result of spontaneous pneumomediastinum (gas trapping in the mediastinum). Poor posture and injury can also cause temporary neck crepitus which can be corrected.

There different underlying conditions that contribute to cracking sounds on movement. Cervical spondylosis, i.e., inflammation of the cervical vertebrae presents as neck crepitus, neck stiffness and neck and arm pain.

Unlike neck cracking which is a conscious activity, neck crepitus is the manifestation of an underlying problem which may be cervical spondylosis or neck arthritis.

Neck Pain Along With Grinding Sensation

Osteoarthritis is a common joint degenerative disorder that affects the old. Several old individuals across the globe suffer from osteoarthritis of the neck i.e., cervical osteoarthritis.

In this type of arthritis, the cartilage present between the neck joint gets disintegrated leading to formation of bone spurs (osteophytes). As the joint moves in the absence of ligaments, there is friction between the bones. This produces cracking noise on certain movements. This movement is also accompanied by neck pain which may be radiculopathic in nature (due to impingement of nerves).

Risks Associated With Neck Cracking

Neck cracking can lead you into trouble if not done properly. Repeated neck cracks can damage the neck joint and the surrounding tissues including the ligaments and the tendons.

Nerve Damage (Radiculopathy)

Excessive pressure changes on the neck joints can lead to damage to the nerves. By twisting abruptly you can impinge nerves in the cervical spinal column causing nerve symptoms. A pinched spinal nerve presents as neck pain that radiates to the shoulder/arm region. You may also experience numbness, burning and tingling sensations in the neck.

Damage To Blood Vessels

You neck houses many important blood vessels. If you crack your neck in an abnormal way in can lead to arterial damage. Blood clotting in the brain can take place in case of severe damage to the vessels. This clotting is the feature of a serious issue, i.e., stroke. Stroke can be a life-threatening event or can leave you disable at the least.

Joint Damage

Your body’s joints are composed of many hard and soft tissues. The bones, ligaments and tendons, all play a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the joint. Too much pressure of sudden pressure changes can cause significant damage to the neck structures.

When you crack the neck repeatedly, you forcefully stretch the ligaments. This repeated stretching can alter the structure of the soft tissues, making them unstable. This may lead to a problem called cervical spine instability (perpetual instability). You may experience increased neck cracking with cervical instability.

The worst part part is that this instability increases your chances of developing osteoarthritis. The degenerative disease of the old age develops due to cartilage breakdown. So, if your ligaments and other surrounding tissues are already in a fix, there is a greater chance of disease.

Muscle Spasms And Hypermobility

Overstretching of muscles can put them under strain. Tempmorary spasms of the muscles from neck cracking are common and generally do not need any treatment. You just need to stop cracking for some time.

By continously exposing your joints to a stretched condition, you can induce hypermobility. The increased mobility is not good for your neck.

Should I Visit A Chiropractor?

Neck cracking is a habit which is safe if done within the limits. You don’t need to worry much if there are no symptoms or issues. However, you should visit a doctor to rule out neck issues if facing crepitus. Many people seek treatment for chronic neck crepitus.

For neck pain you can visit a physical therapist or a chiropractor. These are trained professionals who return the misplaced structures (discs, muscles, ligaments, etc.) to their original position, thus, relieving you of neck pain. Chiropractic care has been proven to be an effective way of managing neck stiffness and pain.

FAQs

  1. Why is my neck cracking so much?You can experience neck cracking due to the release of gas bubbles from the joints. There can also be some underlying issues that cause cracking sounds. Instabillity of the soft tissues (ligaments and tendons) can also cause snapping and grinding sensations. Joint damage due to arthritis can also be a contributing factor.
  2. How do I get rid of the crunching sound in my neck?You should visit a chiropractor for the crunching sounds in the neck. A doctor or chiropractor will realign the misaligned structures of the joint to remove grinding and crunching. You may apply ice to the neck if there is a swelling. Exercise and yoga can also help reduce neck crepitus.
  3. When should I be worried about neck cracking?Neck cracking is serious if you start experiencing the following symptoms with the cracking sound

    Brain swelling

    Fever

    Neck pain that radiates to the arm

    Burning and tingling sensation

    Numbness of the neck, arms or hands

  4. Is neck crepitus serious?In most cases neck crepitus is just due to the release of trapped gas bubbles in the synovial joints. The condition can be due to ligament and tendon instability. The soft tissue problems are not serious per see but can become serious if left untreated. Neck crepitus needs to be dealt seriously if it is due to underlying arthritis.
  5. Does crepitus ever go away?Yes, crepitus can go away if it is due to an injury/trauma or poor posture. You can get rid of the neck crepitus by correcting your posture. Proper treatment of the injury will free you from the cracking sounds. However, neck crepitus will not go away if it is a consequence of chronic diseases like arthritis.
  6. What is the underlying medical condition of neck crepitus?Underlying neck conditions for crepitus include gas escaping the joints, tendon/ligament instability and neck arthritis.

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