Do you occasionally feel like impressing your friends and neighbours through neck cracking? Or do these sounds or crepitus occur on their own without you playing any active role in making them happen? Well, neck cracking can be both safe and dangerous, depending on the actual cause.
If you are consciously clicking the neck and it does not cause you any pain, you may not be in danger. But whereby the sound comes on its own, especially when accompanied by pain, you could be at risk. However, no matter the cause of the problem, the good news is that the problem has a cure and therefore, it should not cause you any fears. In this post, we shall be talking about neck cracking, its causes, whether the condition is good or bad, treatment, pain relief, and when to see a doctor.
What is neck cracking?
Neck cracking or ‘clicking neck’ is the audible sound which occurs when you tilt (lateral flexion) or rotate (turn) the head. Majority of the sounds are generated when the tight neck muscles cause the vertebrae (bones of the neck) to rub against each other when some movements are performed.
Apart from the cracking or clicking sound produced upon certain movement, the sufferer may be symptomless, meaning that there is usually no pain. But in some cases, the condition may lead to headache, upper back or neck pain, or swelling as a result of the continual spasms of the muscles.
Causes of Neck Cracking
Neck cracking is caused by several factors. We shall be taking a look at the various causes, one after the other.
Changes in pressure of the synovial joint fluid
There have been contradictory reports as to the actual cause of crepitus or popping that occurs with movement of the head. Several experiments were conducted by cracking the synovial joints of the fingers in order to determine the actual cause of the noise.
While a study result published in 1971 posited that the noise was created by bursting the gaseous bubbles in the synovial fluid of the joints, another study made in 2015 counteracted this opinion by saying that the clicking noise was from the bubble being created in the synovial fluid.
Herniated vertebral disc
Another possible cause of the popping or grinding sound is when two neighboring bones of the spine (vertebrae) lie too close to each other and rub against themselves when there is movement. When there is poor lubrication of the joints and poor flexibility as seen in certain conditions, the articulating vertebral facets (the rubbing point of two vertebrae) could also produce the clicking sound.
Ligament or Tendon moving round the bone
One other possible cause of the crepitation or clicking sound on the neck is the snapping sound produced by ligaments and tendons as they rub over the bones in the course of movements. This happens mostly when there is enough force in the opposite direction (this can be from spasm of the muscles).
Bone on bone grinding
This is possible if one bone grinds against another one due to a worn-out cartilage. This is common in osteoarthritis, a condition which sets in as one gradually ages. The condition can also be aggravated by traumatic injuries like sports-related injury or whiplash.
When there are adhesions on the joint, it can lead to a clicking sound otherwise known as grating, when the head is turned or twisted (as a result of impairment of movement).
The thick synovial fluid which surrounds the seven joints of the neck lubricates the bones and makes movement easier and free. The fluid is made up of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gases capable of forming bubbles. Pressure within the bubble can increase as a result of movement, leading to popping or bursting of the bubbles. This is heard as cracking sound and is one of the major reasons why there is neck cracking.
When undergoing chiropractic adjustment, the cracking sound is produced due to a temporary vacuum created within the joint, which eventually collapses to create the clicking sound.
Neck Muscle Spasm
Spasms of the neck muscles contribute in no small measure to clicking neck. Spasms lead to involuntary movement and stiffening of the muscles of the neck, especially the Sternocleidomastoid and the Trapezius (muscle of the back) thereby leading to a cracking sound as one tries to move the head in certain directions. The different causes of neck muscle spasm include:
When there is a trauma to the muscles of the neck (as seen in whiplash injury), the muscles go into spasm, leading to a pull on the cervical vertebrae (bones of the neck) thereby causing an abnormal curvature of the cervical vertebrae (a condition known as Lordosis).
Stooping over a desk and hunching when sitting or walking can lead to neck muscle spasm especially when done for a long period. Adopting a bad position when sleeping (like sleeping on an uneven surface or sleeping on too many pillows) can also cause spasm of the muscles of the neck.
Excessive loss of fluids and electrolytes such as calcium and magnesium can also bring about spasm of the muscles. This may continue until the deficiency and the electrolyte imbalance are corrected.
Excessive strain or overexertion of the muscles especially when you exercise without first stretching the muscles before the workout can lead to neck muscle spasm and consequently to neck cracking. Excessive exercise of the muscle may give rise to reduced oxygen and a build-up of lactic acid in the muscle. These factors combine to reduce the muscles ability to stretch properly and relax.
Psychological stress sometimes causes cramping of the muscles of the neck. This has been linked to the propping up of the shoulders during periods of anxiety and psychological stress. With prolonged psychological stress, the muscles experience some cramping.
Is Cracking neck good or bad?
Cracking neck is simply a situation where you experience some popping sound as you roll your neck after sitting in the same position for a long time. Those who crack their necks do so mainly to relieve the stiffness in the neck joints.
It is a bad and risky practice to crack your neck. This is because the practice can cause further damage to the muscles that are already overstretched from whiplash injury, for example.
Cracking the neck repeatedly can also produce more stiffness and pain on the neck rather than creating the relief you seek. With the stiffness and pain, movement could be further restricted on the neck.
Besides, for those below the age of 60 years, repeated cracking can cause some blood vessels to rupture and produce a blood clot which eventually hinders adequate supply of blood to the brain. This can lead to stroke. However, if the cracking is occasional and unforced, the possibility of complications is minimal and remote.
In a nutshell, neck cracking can result in neck pain, headache, stroke, joint degeneration or osteoarthritis, and some other problems. Therefore, it is not advisable to crack your neck for any reason.
Neck cracking can be treated in various ways, including treating the underlying cause of the problem. In the light of the foregoing, the problem can be treated in the following ways:
See an osteopath or a chiropractor
Seeing a spinal doctor who specializes in establishing the normal motion of the neck and putting the neck back to it normal function is a good place to start. Adjustment (manual manipulation) of the joint would be performed to loosen those stiff muscles of the neck. The osteopath or chiropractor may even apply the traction or massage techniques in relieving the problem.
This involves relieving the pain, tension and swelling in the muscle by sticking very thin needles into specific points of energy at the muscle/skin level. Acupuncture can be used as a primary or auxiliary management for the problem. This can be carried out by naturopaths, physicians, massage therapist, physical therapists or chiropractor. The acupuncture point that would provide the relief may be located at far away areas of the body, not necessarily on the neck.
Professional neck massage
Clicking neck can also be treated through professional neck massaging that helps to lessen spasm, minimize inflammation and promote muscle relaxation. Such result can be achieved by massaging the deep tissues of the neck to handle the original muscle strain that could have resulted from whiplash, sports injury, etc.
Change your work
Neck cracking sometimes results from minor injuries from physical activities or repetitive motions in the course of work. You can make a few adjustments in your work environment if it is contributing to your problem. If the position of your computer is making you strain your neck, change its position to a friendlier one. However, if your job is such that you can’t change the environment, suggest to your supervisor to move you to another environment that is free from the same challenges.
Reappraise your sleeping position
Your sleeping position could be responsible for the strain on your neck. Sleeping on an excessively hard/high pillow or extremely soft mattress could cause a strain on your neck and upper back. If these are responsible, readjust them. Try an orthopaedic pillow or mattress that keeps your body on a straight alignment.
Use a neck collar
When the stiffness becomes uncomfortable, then there is the need to consider using a neck collar especially if there is spondylosis. This will help to minimize unnecessary movement of the affected muscles and reduce pains and further degeneration of the joints.
Some forms of exercise are helpful in treating this condition. Since the pain is usually caused by neck muscle spasm, you have to apply an exercise that assists in reducing or easing the spasm. Bend your head forward and allow your chin to touch your chest. This will help to stretch the muscles of the back of the neck and also strengthen the neck. In addition, bend your head sideways to help in easing the strain on the neck muscles. Do the exercises up to 2 to 3 times daily.
Since joint stiffness contributes to clicking neck, a gentle range-of-motion exercise can help release the stiff muscles and reduce pain and improve free movement. Stretch your neck muscles gently to ease the tension in the muscles of the neck. Exercise the weak muscles in order to increase the supply of blood to the area and reduce pain.
Neck Cracking and Headache
Neck cracking can sometimes lead to a nasty headache. While some people believe that cracking is a way of relieving the tension built up in the neck joint, it is good to understand that cracking itself builds up pressure in the neck joint. Occasionally, as you try to crack your neck you get the muscles overstretched and injured. This can manifest with headache.
Besides, cracking can lead to trapping of nerves around the neck. When this happens, you are sure to receive a warning that something has gone wrong. This comes in form of severe headache.
Pain relief for neck cracking
The pain that comes with neck cracking can be relieved in any of these ways:
- Warm fomentation: Applying warmth with a hot water bottle or heat bag can help in relieving the pain caused by muscle spasm, by improving blood supply to the area and causing the muscles to relax.
- Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: These are potent drugs that perform two major functions of reducing inflammation/swelling and relieving pain. Examples include Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Indomethacin, Piroxicam and Diclofenac.
- Icepack: Applying icepacks can also help in controlling inflammation and relieving pain in the affected muscles of the neck. Make sure to wrap the icepack in a towel before applying it to the neck to prevent burns.
When to see a doctor?
Not all cases of neck cracking require the attention of the doctor. But you must consider seeing the doctor immediately if you have the following:
- Neck pain with swelling: The presence of pain and swelling could be an indication that you could be having osteoarthritis or other forms of inflammatory process going on in the joint. This needs to be investigated by your doctor and the proper treatment commenced.
- Accompanying symptoms: Neck cracking that is accompanied by headache, swollen glands or fever needs to be investigated by your doctor so that appropriate care can be given.
- Recent surgery: Periodically new cracking sounds may show up in the neck weeks after undergoing surgery. This can be normal in some cases and shouldn’t be a cause for concern. However, your surgeon needs to be aware of this development in case there is something serious that has to be taken care of.
- Recent injury or accident: Neck cracking sounds could also show up after an injury or trauma such as sports injury, a fall, road traffic accident, etc. This can be a pointer to the fact that there is a structural change that needs to be handled by a professional doctor.
- Constant or frequent crepitus: If the crepitus on the joint becomes constant or occurs regularly with almost every movement, then you must see the doctor who would investigate if there is any functional problem at the joint.
Other reasons why you should see the doctor include:
- Pain that comes out of nowhere
- Weakness or numbness in the neck
- Inability to bend the neck forward
- Pain radiates to your extremities
- Pain is accompanied by nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Inability to move your hands or arms.
Neck cracking should not be seen as a solution to stiff or painful neck muscles. If you are ever tempted to crack your neck, you must be sure that it does not pose any health danger to you and that it is done under the supervision of a professional doctor, chiropractor, physical therapist or naturopath.
However, if you have a cracking sound in your neck that needs attending to at home, the tips we have presented in this post will help relieve your problem without posing any danger to your life. But if the suggestions fail to address your problem, see the doctor for further investigation and appropriate management of the condition.