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Neck cracking: Benefits and dangers of the ‘pop’
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Neck cracking: Benefits and dangers of the ‘pop’

The neck is an intricate structure that includes bones, muscles, tendons, blood vessels and nerves. Its improper or forceful manipulation could cause injury, say experts
When you stretch your neck, it creates a negative pressure in the synovial joints.
When you stretch your neck, it creates a negative pressure in the synovial joints. (Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K/Happiest Health)

Neck cracking could offer some instant relief, but are there hidden dangers lurking in that satisfying ‘crack’? While it’s the subject of curiosity and controversy, neck cracking remains a mystery, leaving us all wondering: to crack or not to crack?  

What causes the ‘pop’ during neck cracking

We have seven neck bones as part of the vertebrae. Of these, only two are connected by joints. These joins contain synovial fluid to ease mobility, hence; they are called synovial joints,” says Dr Sindhu DM, consultant neurologist and epileptologist, Apollo Hospital, Sheshadripuram, Bangalore. “A synovial joint comprises ligaments that connect the bones, and articular cartilage lining the bones and synovial fluid. This is a slippery protein-polysaccharide complex containing dissolved gases like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.”  

When you stretch your neck, it creates a negative pressure in the synovial joints. Dr Sindhu explains, “This expels the dissolved gases out of the synovial fluid, causing a pop sound like when you open an aerated drink bottle.”   

Pros and cons of neck cracking

The perceived benefits of neck cracking often revolve around temporary relief from tension or discomfort. Some individuals feel a sensation of release or reduced stiffness. “Neck cracking can feel good because cracking a joint enlarges it, and it feels looser and more flexible. Cracking is said to release endorphins or feel-good hormones. Hence, some people want to repeat the action,” says Dr Sindhu.  

However, scientific evidence supporting the benefits attributed to neck cracking is limited. Rather, the practice, particularly through self-manipulation or chiropractic adjustments, has been associated with certain risks.  A 2018 study published in the Journal of Biomedical Research and Reviews on the potential dangers of neck manipulation and risk for dissection and devastating stroke concluded that high-velocity thrust manipulation of the cervical spine places the carotid and vertebral arteries at risk of dissection. However, a 2012 systematic review published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice assessing the risk of stroke from neck manipulation found a lack of conclusive evidence for a strong association between neck cracking and stroke. 

Should you crack your neck?

Cracking your neck should be approached cautiously due to potential risks.  

Neck cracking can be dangerous, especially if you are using hands to turn the neck. Repeated instances of such an action can stretch and strain the ligaments, causing pain. Your ligaments can become loose, compromising [neck] stability. This can lead to neck pain, disc prolapse, nerve compression causing a tingling sensation in upper limbs and osteoarthritis. In rare cases, it can cause injury to the blood vessels (vertebral artery) passing through the neck,” cautions Dr Sindhu.

It might be safer to consult a healthcare professional, such as a chiropractor or doctor, before attempting any form of neck manipulation. They can provide guidance tailored to your needs and advise on safe techniques.  However, exercising can be a better alternative. “Neck stretching and strengthening exercises are great ways to keep your neck flexible and pain-free. Also, maintaining a good posture is crucial,” says Dr Sindhu.  

Takeaways

  • Seven neck bones are part of the vertebrae in our body. Only two bones are connected by joints. These joints contain synovial fluid, which allows mobility. 
  • Neck cracking can be dangerous, especially when done forcefully. Doing this repeatedly can stretch and strain the ligament causing pain. 
  • Neck stretching and strengthening exercises are the best ways to keep your neck flexible and pain-free. Maintaining a good posture is important, too. 

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