Neck Cracking: A Common Practice that Could be Harmful

Many of us habitually crack our neck especially after being in one position for a long time. We move our neck from side to side and a cracking sound is heard or a pop can also be noticed. What exactly is neck cracking and how might it be harmful? Our neck is made up of muscles, ligaments, joints and tendons that support the vertebrae or cervical bones (7 bones). The purpose of these 7 cervical bones is to support the head and neck allowing movement such as twisting and bending.

Causes of neck cracking:

Stress can cause the cracking sound that is heard when we purposely move our neck from side to side or around from side to side. The neck cracking can be harmful if pain is present when cracking occurs. The medical term for the cracking sound is “cavitation” and it is actually the result of increased pressure in the fluid of the neck joints that contain both carbon dioxide gas and nitrogen. The popping or cracking sound that is often heard is the result of bursting bubbles that are formed from the carbon dioxide gas and the nitrogen.

If ligaments become stuck on the bony projections of the neck and then are loosened by the movement of the neck and the ligaments slip off the bony surface you can hear a cracking sound.

Osteoarthritis and osteoporosis are two diseases that when located in the neck region can lead to bone changes that when the neck is moved a cracking sound is heard. Older people can lose the natural cushion between the cervical bones of the neck, which can lead to neck cracking.

Sometimes athletes will have a previous neck injury that leads to neck cracking during certain movements.

What can happen as a result of repeated neck cracking?

After a period of time when neck cracking has occurred frequently the neck can lose some of its mobility because the cartilage has been worn down or degenerative changes have occurred as the result of arthritis. The person may experience inflammation of the neck and neck pain as pressure continues to build upon the nerves of the neck region.

Habitual neck cracking can lead to too much stress on the neck joints and the ligaments can be stressed to excess, which will result in instability or formation of bone bridges in-between the neck vertebrae as a result of the body trying to stabilize the neck joints.

There have been studies that show habitual neck cracking can lead to strokes in individuals that are younger than 60 years of age. Frequent neck cracking can also cause injuries to the blood vessels of the neck or to the cervical arteries, which may cause blood clots that can then travel to the brain causing a stroke.

Remedies:

When you experience prolonged positioning of the neck and seek relief, instead of cracking the neck try exercising the neck muscles by lowering the head to the front of the body until your chin touches the chest. Remain in this position for a few moments to stretch the back of the neck.

Massage the neck to relieve tight muscles and to improve the blood flow to these muscles.

Turn your head as far as possible to one side and then the other. This is called Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) exercise. Use your hands to stabilize the head while doing the exercise and do not push to the point of feeling pain.

If you feel that you have chronic neck pain, sudden acute neck pain or that you may be experiencing stroke seek medical treatment immediately.

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