Habitual neck cracking is done by some people to relieve tension in the neck. However, it can result in some undesirable side effects like pain, osteoarthritis, and stroke. Gentle neck exercises are recommended to relieve neck pain.
Neck cracking produces a crackling sound similar to what we hear when some people twist their knuckles to reduce stress. Some men do this on purpose by twisting and turning the neck after getting out of bed or from any prolonged position. The cracking sound may be accompanied by a pop and this may bring some relief. Others also crack their lower back, toes, and ankles. Many people do these habitually and unknowingly, and although it may be relaxing, neck cracking may also be harmful.
Causes of neck cracking
The neck is made up of seven cervical bones called vertebrae that are supported by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. These provide mobility and support to the head and neck, allowing us to bend, twist, and move without stress. However, persistent stress can cause the neck to produce a cracking sound when twisted. Generally, this may be harmless, but if neck cracking is accompanied by pain, you must consider seeking medical consultation.
A thick fluid (synovial fluid) surrounds each of the seven neck joints, providing lubrication to facilitate their movements. This fluid contains nitrogen and carbon dioxide gas, which can form bubbles. Moving the neck joints can increase pressure in the bubbles, causing popping, or bursting of these bubbles. This process, called cavitation, is heard as a cracking sound, and is the leading cause of neck cracking.
Ligaments support a joint where two or more bones meet, providing mobility to the joint. Bones may have some projections that are raised where ligaments can get stuck and are let loose when moving the neck. When there is a slippage of ligaments from the surface of a bone projection, neck cracking can occur.
Diseases like osteoporosis and arthritis may be characterized by joint roughening. These conditions lead to degenerative bone changes in the neck that cause cracking when moved.
Cervical osteoarthritis(also called cervical spondylosis) develops as people age. After the age of 50, the spongy discs between the cervical vertebrae degenerate and lose their ability to provide a natural cushion between the bones. As the cervical vertebrae and their ligaments become thicker, they encroach onto the space between the bones, making the space become smaller. This results in neck stiffness and pain, and also leads to neck cracking in older people. Cervical spondylosis can also be a result of poor posture.
A previous neck injurymay occur in certain people who perform strenuous activities like athletes and gymnasts. The injured neck joint may experience more stress, causing neck cracking with certain movements.
Side effects of neck cracking
Neck cracking can result in some undesirable effects, including:
- Neck Pain - Neck cracking can decrease the mobility of the neck after some time. This is due to the wearing down of the cartilages surrounding the vertebrae, leading to degenerative changes characteristic of arthritis. This results in inflammation and neck pain as pressure builds up on the nerves.
- Osteoarthritis - Habitual neck cracking places considerable stress on the neck joints, causing the ligaments to stretch excessively. This can lead to instability, which induces the formation of bone bridges between the vertebrae, as the body tries to stabilize the joint. However, this is not a normal process, and can lead permanent and irreversible joint stabilization called osteoarthritis.
- Stroke - Studies reveal that strokes occurring in people younger than 60 years old may be due to habitual neck cracking. Repeated neck cracking can cause injuries to the blood vessels in the neck or cervical arteries. These tears on the arteries can lead to bleeding and formation of blood clots that can travel to the brain. Blood clots can block blood flow, which can deprive oxygen supply to the brain. A stroke caused by neck cracking may be minor, causing a transient ischemic attack, but it may also be fatal. Common symptoms of stroke include dizziness, confusion, weakness involving half of the body, blurred vision, trouble speaking, and severe headache. Emergency treatment is needed when these symptoms occur.
Relief for neck cracking
For mild conditions, one can employ these simple remedies:
- Exercise - The back of the neck is often held tightly in position when working, causing the muscles to shorten, and preventing natural movements of the neck. You can exercise these muscles by lowering your head to the front until the chin touches the chest. Keep the head in this position as long you can to stretch the back of the neck, then release.
- Joint Movement - When the neck joints are not freely moving, grinding noises may be heard. Muscle tightness can also cause neck pain. Gently stretch your neck to ease the tension in the neck muscles. Exercise the weak neck muscles to improve the blood flow in this area and relieve pain.
- Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) Exercise - The SCM is the large muscle at each side of the neck that causes much pain. Stretch you SCM by turning your head as far as possible to one side. You may feel minor discomfort and hear grinding or crunching sounds, but avoid pushing it until you feel pain. You can use your hands to stabilize the head while turning. Do the same procedure gently to turn the head to the other side.
You may need medical help when severe side effects such as neck pain, stroke, and osteoarthritis occur. Keep the neck stable and avoid sudden neck movements until you get appropriate medical help.