Many people can crack their own back, often to the dismay of those that live around them. A contortionist’s twist, sometimes multiple times a day, followed by some popcorn sounds, and on with their day. Grandmothers have been telling us for years that this will surely cause arthritis. I have even heard other chiropractors condemn this activity, but is it really bad for you? And if so, what are the risks and what can be done about the habit?
What happens when a joint cracks?
With the help of studies using x-rays and MRI imaging we have a good idea of just what happens when a joint pops. Pulling the joint surfaces apart reduces pressure inside the joint. The vacuum created by this reduction in pressure makes the dissolved gases that normally exist in the joint fluid to form bubbles. This is similar to what happens when a soda bottle is opened, and the bubbles form in the soda. Those small bubbles then combine to form a bigger bubble. As this bubble forms, it makes a loud, audible pop that you can hear outside the body, a few feet away. See this video for a real time MRI visual of this process.
The result of all this is that the joint moves more easily and with a greater range of motion. This is the therapeutic process called an adjustment that we use as chiropractors to affect stiff joints in the body that are causing painful symptoms, like headaches or neck pain.
Does that damage the joint?
The short answer to that question is no. There are multiple studies that have looked at this question, and the answer appears to be that it does not negatively affect the joints. In fact, this study showed that the people who did crack their knuckles were much less likely to get arthritis in their hands than those who did not. One doctor cracked the knuckles of one hand and not the other for 50 years to see what would happen!
So if we can say that cracking the joints does not damage them outright, can we say that all that self back-cracking is good or bad? For that question we need to look at why people crack their own backs, and what is happening there.
Cracking your own back
In my years in practice, I have met many people who crack their own back, and they often ask me if it is ok to continue, since it feels so good. I find that if I can correct their backs with my, more targeted, adjustments, they no longer feel the urge to stretch and twist all the time, so they stop the back cracking habit. This observation has led me to the conclusion that people get the urge to twist and crack when something is not moving correctly in the back. By self adjusting their spines, they get temporary relief.
Sounds harmless. However, in my opinion, the habit reinforces the imbalance between the movable joints and the restricted joints in the back, and that is the problem.
Equal labor and your spinal joints
There are so many joints in your spine – about 50 if you don’t include the discs, which cannot pop – that some of them can get stiff without you knowing. The other healthy joints pick up the slack, and your movement doesn’t really change much at all. However, these lazy joints put extra strain on the moveable areas, which eventually leads to a painful episode. I think that chronic back pain ultimately arises from this imbalance in joint mobility becoming ingrained in your movement pattern.
You see, when someone twists and bends to pop their spine, the joints that pop are the ones that can already move. Since you cannot direct the force of the twist, like a chiropractor can, the healthy joints pop. This gives some temporary relief, but is not fixing the restricted joints, which are the source of the problem.
So what this all means is that the act of cracking a joint does no damage to the joint itself, but it can lead to improper movement patterns that can predispose you to back and neck pain. If you have a habit of snapping your own back, schedule a check-up at our Norwalk, CT chiropractic office. Dr French can let you know if he can help correct the cause of your joint stiffness, and get you feelign normal again.