Is Cracking Your Neck Bad For You?

is cracking your neck bad

Your neck is the part of the body that joins your head to the rest of your body.

Occasionally we tend to feel pain in our neck and in an attempt to provide some relief, we crack, pop or twist it quickly from side to side but the question is this; “Is it bad?”

Tilting your head from side to side and hearing a soft click is different from rapidly turning your head to the side for that quick relief. Chiropractors and physiotherapists can manipulate the neck when you have pain and a crack sound may be heard with total pain relief felt.

To fully understand the effects of neck cracking, we need to know the structure of the neck.

The Structure Of The Neck

neck structure

The spine supports our body and gives us our upright posture in different positions. The spine is divided into 5 sections:

  • The cervical region
  • The thoracic region
  • The lumbar region
  • The sacral region
  • The coccygeal region

The neck or cervical region is made of bones, muscles, nerves, ligaments, and organs. The neck can move in different planes of motion:

  • Flexion
  • Extension
  • Rotation
  • Side flexion

The neck is made up of 7 cervical bones. The first cervical bone (C1) is known as the atlas and the skull rests directly on it. The second cervical bone (C2) is known as the axis and joins with the C1 to allow the head to rotate. Each vertebra joins with the next to form joints that allow for easy movement of the neck.

At every vertebral joint, there are jelly-like shocks absorbing pads known as intervertebral discs. The intervertebral discs allow smooth movement of the vertebrae on top of each other for easy movement of the neck.

Major blood vessels pass through ‘pathways’ along the vertebrae of the cervical spine called the vertebral foramen. these blood vessels are:

  • The subclavian arteries
  • The vertebral arteries

Nerves also pass through the cervical spine- the cervical plexus and the phrenic nerve. The phrenic nerve supplies the diaphragm (a flat sheet of muscle that helps you breathe) while the cervical plexus supply the neck and the trunk.

What Causes Cracking Sounds In The Neck?

neck cracking

Some things can cause cracking or popping sounds in the neck. Some of them may be due to:

1. Ligaments And Muscle Movements

After sitting at your laptop or using your laptop on your bed for too long with your neck hanging over your laptop, you may feel a crack noise in your neck as you try to assume straighten your neck. The muscles may be moving on each other or moving against a bone while being in the “hanging head” posture for too long.

2. Escaping Gas 

We all know that sound we hear when we crack our knuckles. It does not cause pain. The sounds are said to happen when tiny bubbles that form in the synovial fluid pop and make a popping or crack-like sound. This is usually known as cavitation.

3. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects the joints in the body. It is an age-related condition meaning it may happen, as we grow older. It is usually caused by the wear and tear of the bones and the cartilages between these bones. So imagine the lubricant between your bones reducing and the bones rubbing against each other, you may hear cracking sounds while moving your neck.

When Is Neck Cracking Serious?

Occasionally ‘cracking’ your neck isn’t that bad but when it becomes a persistent habit, it may be associated with some health problems.

Cracking your neck may become serious when you start experiencing the following:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Neck stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Tingling sensations in your arms or fingers

What Can Happen If You Repeatedly Crack Your Neck?

Major blood vessels and nerves go through the cervical bones to carry out their many functions. Cracking your neck repeatedly may lead to the following:

1. Stroke

The vertebral artery and other major blood vessels pass through the cervical spine. Repeated cracking may occlude or tear the vertebral artery, which may lead to reduced blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which can lead to a stroke.

2. Osteoarthritis

This is a condition caused by the wear and tear of bones and ligaments. It is often said to be age related but that may not always be the case. Frequently cracking your neck may cause early wear and tear of the cartilages and then lead to early osteoarthritis.

3. Nerve Damage

Major nerves that supply the arms pass through the neck to the arms from the brain. Frequent cracking may cause nerve injuries, which affect your arms causing neurological impairments.

4. Neck Stiffness

Cracking your neck all the time can lead to a muscle strain or ligament sprain and it may then get difficult to move your neck.

How To Stop Cracking Your Neck

how to stop cracking your neck

  1. Work on your mind. Make a conscious effort to stop cracking your neck when you feel pain.
  2. Stretch. Instead of cracking, stretch your neck. Some neck stretches that you can do are:
    • Turning your head from side to side. Your chin to your shoulder
    • Bending your head. Your ear to your shoulder and not your shoulder to your ear
  3. Use an ice pack. You can make yours or get reusable ice packs that can be left in the freezer or fridge. This will help relieve any pain or strain at your neck
  4. Assume a correct posture at all times. Either sitting or sleeping or standing, ensure that your neck is kept in a neutral position. There is a tendency for us to drop our heads when using our phones or laptops and then later have a forward head posture, which can cause pain and may lead to you cracking your neck.
  5. Use a firm mattress and firm pillows while you sleep. Ensuring your spine is well aligned as you sleep will reduce any form of pain that may tempt you to crack your neck when you wake up in the morning.

Conclusion

Cracking of the neck is not bad when done by a health professional expert like a physiotherapist who will ask a few questions and carry out some tests before manipulating your neck. However, when you do it yourself without seeing a medical practitioner, it may cause more harm than good to you.

Adekanmi Lipede

Adekanmi Lipede is a licensed physiotherapist with a Master's degree in physical activity and public health. She loves to exercise and read.