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Neck Cracking: Causes, Side Effects, Risks and Treatment

What is Neck Cracking?

Neck cracking or knuckle twisting termed as ‘crepitus’ in medical terminology. Healthy individuals can keep their heads, necks and in fact, the entire body in position owing to the orderly movement of the muscles, bones, tissues, tendons, and ligaments. When we try to grind our head or neck, cerebrospinal/synovial fluids within the joints are mobilized causing a temporary or partial vacuum leading to crepitus.

The Phenomenon

Often, you may have jerked your neck sideways or moved your head upwards and downwards to get relief from the tension built in the neckline. The jerking movements generate a crisp crackling sound resembling the sounds produced when you try to crack your knuckles. Most of us crack our necks, twist fingers, and bend lower back, ankles or toes after remaining in a prone, supine or sedentary position for an extended period to de-stress.

Shooting pains with inflammation flare-ups might be indicative of a health issue, and its recommended that you should schedule a visit to your local or family physician as early as possible.

Risks When You Try to Crack Your Neck

Although it is quite common, neck cracking can also be harmful when not done correctly. Some associated risks are:

  1. Cracking might pinch the nerves of your neck. This condition is mostly excruciating and may even lead to a scenario where you find it impossible to move the neck.
  2. Can strain the muscles around the joint or the joint itself. The neck might feel like a chore when muscles or joints get strained.
  3. Cracking your neck a lot can result in a condition known as hypermobility. In this case, the joints have a larger range of motion than usual.
  4. Giving into the urge of neck cracking might permanently stretch the ligaments of the neck joints called Perpetual instability. These stretches put you at the risk of developing osteoarthritis.
  5. Lastly, as the neck is the den of prominent blood vessels, forceful or continuous cracking your neck can puncture the blood vessels. This situation may also cause blood clotting that can be dangerous as this will block the blood flow to the brain.

Neck Cracking

Causes Behind Neck Cracking 

Anatomically speaking, our necks are comprised of 7 cervical bones and is collectively known as cervical vertebrae. They remain in place by the surrounding muscles, ligaments, tendons, sinews, and tendons. The smooth functioning of all these components encircling the cervical vertebrae is essential for furnishing support to the neck and the head while maintaining mobility. However, if the cracking urge keeps recurring so much so that it becomes an obsession, then it could be that you are having hypermobility in your neck joint, called the pivot joint.

Following are some chief reasons that might induce you to crack your neck more often:

Cavitation

The seven vertebras in the neck section of the vertebral column are kept well lubricated by the synovial fluid flowing or rather circulating these bones. Lubricated vertebras enable you to move your head sideways or up and down with stressing. The synovial fluid contains carbon dioxide and nitrogen gases which form bubbles.

When you shift your neck, the surface tension in the bubbles increases eventually causing the bubbles to burst which results in popping sound. This process or activity is known as crepitation or cavitation and is identified by the crisp crackling noise. If the vertebras in the neck region get stressed out, you will feel it as you’ll have an uncontrollable desire to crack.

Thus you will know that you have ground your neck when the cracking sound is produced. By and large, such an action should not warrant undue attention as the same may not be something to worry. But if you cringe in pain following the cracking activity, there is enough reason for you to seek the help of a medical professional.

Joint Issues

Degenerative joint conditions, including arthritis, osteoarthritis, and spondylitis which predominate as one reaches joint sclerosis or hardening typify the fifties or sixties. The synovial fluid in the joints dries up considerably which limits and inhibits normal mobility. Usually, there is a cracking sound when you try to move. Cervical osteoarthritis that becomes prevalent leads to deteriorative bone changes in the neck joint.’

The malleable discs in between the connecting vertebras play an active role in keeping the bones lubricated become dry and degenerate. The ability of the discs to act as natural padding is compromised. The gradual thickening of the ligaments along with the cervical vertebrae constricts the narrow spaces in between the bones. This situation eventually leads to stiffness in the neck causing pain as well as culminating in cracking in aged people.

Stressed ligaments too could cause neck cracking

Ligaments supplement the lubricating action of the vertebrae in the neck and are situated where one vertebra connects with another. While moving or turning the neck, projections of the bones become somewhat elevated and conspicuous. Thus they are liable to get stuck in the ligaments. Eventually, it leads to the ligaments getting unhinged from the abutting bone’s surface thereby causing neck cracking.

Neck Cracking Side Effects

Many of us are in the habit of deliberately doing it on a routine basis to get relief from the rigidness that builds in the upper extremities as a result of doing a strenuous job. At other times, we resort to cracking to release the tension and stress in the neck. By and large, you should not worry until and unless you have the following issues:

Pain in the neck

Regular neck cracking or grinding can eventually lead to a reduction or diminution of the cervical section of the spine. Recurrent neck grinding causes the muscles, cartilages, ligaments, and tendons around the vertebrae to undergo gradual wear and tear. Owing to these degenerative changes, an individual develops joint problems like arthritis as he steps into his fifties or sixties.

Once diagnosed with the joint condition, you’re more likely to experience excruciating pain in the neck during cracking. Inflammation or soreness may also result due to mounting pressure in the cervical vertebras, discs, and nerves.

Stroke

Several studies carried out in the past have established that those under 60 years of age were at high risk of suffering from strokes (and a good proportion already did) owing to chronic neck cracking. Grinding the neck injuries in the veins, arteries, and capillaries carrying blood to and from the cervical vertebras. Arterial or venous tears cause blood to ooze out and clot.

The blood clots which reach the brain can impede the normal blood supply to the head, thereby depriving it of oxygen and ultimately causing a stroke. Consistent neck grinding could result in a TIA (transient ischemic attack, a minor stroke) but often the stroke could turn out to be fatal. If you suffer from dizziness, have difficulty speaking & seeing, experience splitting headaches, and feel fatigued, then immediate medical intervention is warranted.

Treatment for Neck Cracking

Home Remedies

If the side-effects resulting from neck cracking are mild and bearable, you can try the following solutions in the comfort of your home:

  • Light Neck Exercises: Muscles in the neck become overstressed and shorten, and you find it difficult to move or naturally turn your neck. To relieve the pressure on the neck muscles and nerves, bend your head forwards in the direction of the chest. Keep bending till the chin brushes your chest. Keep your head bent in this fashion for some time to ease off the tension from the nape, and then raise your head.
  • SCM (sternocleidomastoid) Exercise: The pain that you feel in the neck is large because of the stressing out of the sternocleidomastoid muscles located on either side of the neck. To relieve the build up pressure on the SCM muscles, slowly turn your head as much as you can, once to the right and then to the left.
  • Neck Joint Movements: Pain could also result from tautness in the neck muscles. Stretching the neck sideway as well as upwards and downwards in a gentle manner will help restore healthy blood flow and offer you relief from pain.

Consulting a Chiropractor

A chiropractor is the appropriate medical professional you should turn to when it comes to neck cracking.    

When to Seek Medical Help?

If you experience pain during crepitus accompanied by swelling or redness in the neck region, then there is cause for concern. If and when neck cracking causes you intense pain and makes you feel dizzy, gives you headaches, you should contact a physician without any delay.

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