It’s a long day. Tension is telling your spine that you need some relief so you decide to crack your back. Your mom’s voice echoes in the back of your head “Don’t do it! Cracking your joints is not good for you!” You ignore the voice and obtain a satisfying “pop” before returning to the workload, wondering if you did yourself a favor or contributed to future joint degeneration.
So what makes that sound anyway? And how can something that feels so good ever seem bad for you? One theory is that quick movements change joint pressures, moving nitrogen bubbles inside your joint fluid (synovial fluid) and resulting in that desired “pop”. Another mechanism that can cause noise is ligaments undergoing rapid tension. These sounds typically occur when a joint is in a position where it is running out of movement. This is why you may have to bend or twist your body in an unnatural position before you get a “crack”. These mechanisms are usually what are involved when joint cavitation (the medical term for pop) is discussed.
Joint pressure and ligament tension changes are the main causes we will discuss, however there are a few other sources of joint noise which may include tendon rolling, arthritis, or other conditions/mechanisms.
Let’s look at spontaneous popping first (the kind that happens with ordinary movements). Despite these sometimes ominous noises there are usually few reasons to be concerned. Most health professionals agree that cavitation is a very normal occurrence that doesn’t contribute to osteoarthritis or other degenerative joint conditions. So if things get noisy when you roll out of bed in the morning, stand up from a chair, or warm up for your next athletic event, don’t worry. It’s a normal occurrence that doesn’t necessarily point to a brewing joint problem.
Repetitive, intentional joint cracking (the kind your mom didn’t like) is a little different. This self-administered cracking is a little more controversial when applied to the spine. Why the concern? Looking back at the physiology, we see that joint cracking has the potential to apply stress to ligaments. This is due to those tight, end range movements. Concern arises when tight, irritated muscles and joint structures cause an individual to repetitively treat themselves with a crack multiple times per day. The problem is that muscle and other tissues get stretched (potentially) at the ligaments expense. This could create areas of instability in your spine if performed consistently and will not contribute to a long term solution for your stiff back.
So what’s the answer? Instead of twisting and manipulating your own spine, good posture, gentle stretching and strengthening can be beneficial in resolving your pain. See a physical therapist for treatment options on improving your painful neck, back, elbow, etc.
Cracking is only a concern when in conjunction with other problems. Medical examination may be warranted if joint cracking causes pain, results in restricted movement, or is accompanied by signs of inflammation such as redness or swelling. If any other abnormal joint functions occur (such as buckling) seek assistance from a doctor or physical therapist that is trained in joint care and can often see you without a prescription.
Bottom line: don’t worry if your body is determined to be noisy. If you constantly find relief from frequent cracking maneuvers you aren’t doomed to joint problems. However there are probably some other interventions that can fix the root of your problem like physical therapy. Finally, if you experience pain or concern involving a joint seek out a qualified medical professional.