Chances are you’ve done this before: noticed tightness or soreness in your back and stretched it until you hear a cracking sound. This can come with relief and make you feel like you’ve fixed any underlying issue causing you pain. While you may feel better, this result is usually temporary and does not address any long-term issues that are actually causing back problems. You end up cracking your back over and over again, never actually finding true relief. While this isn’t dangerous, there are better alternatives as treatment for back pain.
How the Spine Works
In order to understand why the back cracks and what could cause back pain, it is important to know the nuances of the spine’s complex anatomy. There are three major components of the spine.
The spinal cord is a long, thin bundle of nerves that connects your brain and the nerves that are throughout your body.
Meninges are membranes that surround the spinal cord and brain which absorb any impact to the spine. These membranes contain a fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that serves a number of functions.
The spinal column, or vertebral column, is the core of the spine. It is composed of 33 pieces of bone called vertebrae that are stacked vertically atop one another, reaching from your tailbone to just below your skull. Each vertebra moves independently of the others, allowing the back to be flexible. Between each set of bones is a soft disc filled with a jelly-like fluid called the nucleus pulpous. These discs offer cushion between vertebrae that prevents them from rubbing together and absorbs impact to the spine.
The spine is also connected to a series of tissues, like muscles, in the back that help control movement and function. Together, this entire system enables movement of the body and the nervous system’s communication to the brain.
What Is Happening When Your Back Cracks
There are two main schools of thought around why your back makes a cracking sound.
The most popular theories surround gas that is released when joints are adjusted in certain ways. In this theory, cracking your back stretches soft capsules that sit on the outer edge of your vertebrae around joints known as facet joints. The stretching of these capsules gives more room to the synovial fluid inside them, letting it move around and releasing pressure on your back joints and muscles. The release of this pressure causes synovial fluid to become gaseous and creates the cracking, popping, and snapping sounds you hear. The quick change of state that occurs in this process is called cavitation.
Other theories also involve gas, though different ones. Some experts believe that gases like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide build-up between joints over time, particularly when the joints are swollen or poorly aligned due to poor posture. In this theory, stretching the joints or moving them in certain ways releases the gas and causes the sounds of cracking.
Why It Feels Good
In both theories above, the release of pressure is what can make cracking your back feel good. Most people do report relief from the act.
Along with the release of gases, back cracking also releases endorphins in the area that has been adjusted. Endorphins, which are chemicals the body produces in the pituitary gland, are meant to manage pain in your body, and their release can manage pain in the cracked part of your back.
However, there are also studies that suggest a placebo effect is why so many people report relief from cracking their back. A study from 2011 shows that the sound of back cracking was enough to elicit a feeling of relief in many people, even if nothing happened to their joint at all.
Is It Dangerous to Crack Your Back?
If you crack your back (or knuckles) often, you’ve probably had at least one person tell you it’s dangerous. Myths say that it can cause anything from arthritis to a broken bone: but are they true?
In general, cracking your back should not cause any major pain, and there is no danger associated with cavitation. Adjustments, including professional ones, may be uncomfortable but should not cause true pain. However, an adjustment or movement that is performed improperly can cause damage to the back, which is why it’s important to see an experienced chiropractor for any back pain.
Some potential risks of improper adjustments include the following:
Cracking your back too quickly or forcefully may cause pinched nerves in or near the spinal column. These pinched nerves will hurt for a period of time and can limit your mobility until they are addressed by a professional.
Strains and Tears
Forceful cracking of the back can also strain and tear the muscles in and around your back, including neck muscles and hip muscles. These injuries can make movement difficult or painful, and in very serious cases, could even require surgery.
Cracking your back very frequently over time can cause permanent stretching in the ligaments, known as perpetual instability, which can contribute to osteoarthritis.
Damaged Blood Vessels
Cracking your back too hard or too much may impact important blood vessels that run up and down your back and connect to your brain. This can potentially cause complications like blood clotting, which creates a risk for stroke, aneurysm, and other brain injuries.
Safely Cracking Your Back
If you feel the need to crack your back often, there is likely an underlying problem that needs to be treated by a professional. Even if you do so safely, the repeated need to relieve pressure is an indication of misalignment in the spine. While you wait for your appointment, there are a number of exercises you can use to elicit the same relief, stretch your back muscles, and promote healing in the back. Some examples are below. If any of these cause pain, stop immediately and see a chiropractor.
Knee to Chest Stretch
- Lie on your back and, using your hands, pull one knee up toward your chest. Relax your back and neck into the stretch, using your arms to pull.
- Repeat with the other leg.
- Alternate 2 to 3 times, twice a day.
You can also put your hand below the kneecap, on the back of your thigh, or hooked over your leg.
Lower Back Rotation
- Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor, with your knees bent.
- Keep your shoulders still and slowly move your hips to one side until your knees touch the ground.
- Hold the position for 10 seconds, taking 2 deep breaths.
- Slowly return your knees to the upright position and repeat on the other side.
- Do this 2 to 3 times, twice per day.
- Lie on your back.
- Bring your heels back toward your buttocks so that your knees are bent and point up.
- Press your feet into the floor, slowly lifting your pelvis until your body forms a straight line between the shoulders and knees.
You can also place your feet on a wall while performing the same pelvic lift, which offers more pressure on the back and shoulders to distribute weight.
Seated Lower Back Rotation
- Sit on the ground with your legs straight out. Bring your left leg over your right.
- Put your right elbow to your left knee, then turn your upper body to the left.
- Hold for 10 seconds, or 2 deep breaths, before returning to center.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
When to See a Chiropractor
The repeated need to crack your back usually indicates a misalignment in the spine or other problem that needs to be professionally evaluated. Cracking your back or performing the exercises above will offer temporary relief, but if the initial pain or stiffness returns, it is time to find a chiropractor who will be able to determine the root cause of your pain.
Chiropractors are able to perform adjustments beyond what you can do yourself, and you should never try to emulate these at home or have someone else perform them for you.
You should also see a chiropractor if you notice the need to crack your back more than every 20 minutes. This is the minimum amount of time it would take for gases to gather in the joints again, so this is a sign that something else is the cause of your pressure and pain.
Stinging pain, throbbing, locking joints, and having suffered a recent injury are also reasons you should seek care as soon as possible.
Common Causes of Back Cracking
Once you visit a chiropractor about your back symptoms, they will be able to make a diagnosis related to your spine and if there is an underlying problem or condition causing your pain. Based on their expertise, the chiropractor will be able to make an accurate diagnosis and create a customized treatment plan around your needs and what recovery is possible.
Below are some of the most common causes of back pain that lead people to begin cracking their backs.
Pulled Muscles and Tendons
Something as simple as sleeping in the wrong position or lifting a heavy box can cause you to pull a muscle or tendon in your back. This can cause spasms, tightness, and pain while the muscle heals and returns to normal.
Part of your body’s natural immune response involves inflammation. While this is healthy and can help heal injuries, it also can cause discomfort and pain, especially if it impacts the nerves in your spine. Chronic soreness in the back and spine can often be linked to inflammation.
There are over a hundred kinds of arthritis, which is defined as inflammation of the joints. Certain forms like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are likely to cause stiffness and swelling in the back.
Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bone mass to decrease over time, particularly in the hips, wrist, and spine. The decreased bone mass causes bones to weaken and even fracture.
When the discs between vertebrae are damaged, moved, or ruptured, it can cause pain and numbness or tingling. The displaced matter encroaches on surrounding nerves, causing these symptoms. Degeneration due to aging is usually the cause of these conditions, though they can also result from trauma and injuries.
One of your spine’s major responsibilities is to keep the body upright. When you are slouching often or carrying extra weight, it can put extra stress on your spine, making it more difficult to keep you upright. The back muscles then have to compensate, which can cause discomfort and aching in your back.
There are several other injuries and conditions a chiropractor may uncover during a thorough examination.
Is a Chiropractic Adjustment the Same as Back Cracking?
When you move in such a way that your back cracks, you are usually moving only joints that are already somehow compromised, weak, or compensating for misalignments. Because your spine should not be movable in this way, the cracking can indicate that there is an abnormality in the spine.
A chiropractic adjustment is very different from what you do yourself. The chiropractor will identify any misalignments and issues and focus on those areas during an adjustment. You may hear similar popping and cracking sounds, and some of them may result from the release of gases and cavitation. However, the chiropractor is not moving the same weakened joints that you are. They are making very specific movements aimed at realigning and mobilizing your spine. Hearing no cracking sounds during an adjustment does not mean it isn’t effective.
When you crack your back at home, you should never aim to copy a chiropractic adjustment. Providers spend years learning this very complex skill, and you cannot safely perform it at home.
If you are in need of a chiropractic adjustment and want to stop cracking your own back, contact AICA Orthopedics today to schedule an appointment.