Cracking or popping your back is something many people do on a regular basis. The noise that occurs when you crack your back can provide temporary relief, but there are concerns about the safety and benefits of doing this too often. Determining the right frequency for cracking your back requires understanding what causes the popping sound, the risks and benefits, and what experts recommend.
What causes the cracking sound when you pop your back?
The noises that occur when cracking your back are caused by joints in the spine called facet joints. These joints connect the vertebrae and allow flexibility in the spine. They are surrounded by a capsule filled with synovial fluid which acts as a lubricant. When the facet joints are stretched or twisted, it creates gas bubbles in the synovial fluid. The popping or cracking sound happens when these gas bubbles burst.
After the joints are cracked, they provide added mobility and space between the vertebrae. This extra room releases pressure on the spinal nerves which can temporarily relieve discomfort. However, the effects are temporary as the gases quickly reabsorb into the synovial fluid and the joints return to their normal alignment.
What are the risks of cracking your back too often?
There are some risks associated with cracking your back too frequently:
Increased risk of joint injury
Forcing the joints to pop too often can strain the facet joints and spinal ligaments over time. This repetitive motion beyond the normal range of motion increases the risk of injury. Cracking the neck is especially risky and linked to injuries like whiplash, pinched nerves, and disc herniations.
Development of arthritis
A study published in The Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found an association between frequent spinal cracking and the development of osteoarthritis. The gas bubbles that form in the synovial fluid during cracking may gradually erode and damage the facet joints.
Dependency on cracking
Some people develop a habit or dependency on cracking their back to experience relief. This can lead to cracking excessively throughout the day. Relying on frequent spinal cracking to manage pain may indicate an underlying problem that needs medical attention.
Degenerative disc disease
Research suggests that excessive spinal cracking could contribute to degenerative disc disease. The added spinal motion from cracking places extra stress on the intervertebral discs that cushion and separate the vertebrae. Over time discs can weaken and lose flexibility.
What are the potential benefits of cracking your back?
Along with the risks, some possible benefits of cracking the back in moderation include:
Temporary relief from stiffness or discomfort
Releasing the facet joints provides short-term mobility and alleviates pressure on spinal nerves. The distraction effect can temporarily reduce back tightness and discomfort. This relief may last from 20 minutes up to an hour.
Increased range of motion
Studies show spinal cracking results in greater range of motion immediately after. This extra mobility could make it easier to stretch and reach. But the increase in mobility is fleeting.
Reduced muscle tension
Cracking the back may help relax the paraspinal muscles running along the spine. Releasing tight muscles could aid muscle tension, spasms, or soreness. The effect is temporary until the gases reabsorb.
The gentle traction from spinal adjustments can improve circulation around the spinal joints and muscles. Better blood flow helps deliver oxygen and nutrients. But more research is still needed on this potential benefit.
What do experts recommend for cracking your back?
Most doctors and chiropractors advise limiting spinal cracking to avoid risks and dependency. Here are some recommendations from experts:
Crack naturally without forcing it
Trying to forcibly crack joints that don’t need to be cracked can cause injury. Only crack areas that naturally release on their own during normal movement. Avoid jerking or twisting the neck to get cracks.
Limit cracking to a few times per day
Spinal adjustments 1-3 times per day are reasonable for temporary relief. Cracking every few hours or dozens of times throughout the day is excessive. Takebreaks to avoid developing a habit.
Check your posture and exercise
Frequent cracking may indicate poor posture, lack of mobility, or weak musculoskeletal support. See a physical therapist or chiropractor to address underlying issues. Perform spinal stretches and exercises to strengthen core muscles.
Use alternate pain relief methods
Rely on spinal cracking less by utilizing heat/ice therapy, massage, pain medication, or other pain management techniques recommended by your healthcare provider.
Listen to warning signs
See a doctor if cracking is accompanied by swelling, worsening pain, muscle weakness, tingling, or numbness which may indicate a serious injury or condition.
Get a professional adjustment
Rather than cracking yourself, visit a licensed chiropractor or osteopath. They are trained to safely realign the spine and restrict over-cracking.
How often should you crack your knuckles?
Cracking the knuckles or other joints in the hands and fingers is not recommended as often as cracking the back. Here are guidelines on how often to crack knuckles safely:
Limit cracking to 1-2 times per day
Popping the knuckles more than twice daily is considered excessive. The joints and ligaments in the hands are small and delicate. Cracking the knuckles too often can lead to injury over time.
Let joints crack naturally when required
Avoid forcing cracks by bending or pulling on the fingers. Allow knuckles to crack on their own only when a joint feels stiff or uncomfortable during normal hand movements.
Take breaks between cracking sessions
After cracking the knuckles, wait several hours before doing it again to avoid habitual popping. Take a 1-2 day break from cracking to reset.
Watch for swelling or pain
Swelling, tenderness, and pain after cracking may signal damage to the joints or ligaments. Avoid cracking painful joints and see a doctor if symptoms persist.
Consider wearing a splint ifneeded
For chronic knuckle crackers, wearing a finger splint can provide support and limit the ability to crack. This may help break the habit.
Cracking the knuckles excessively is unlikely to cause arthritis on its own, but it can exacerbate existing joint issues. Keep cracking to a minimum frequency.
When should you avoid cracking your back?
There are certain times when spinal cracking should be avoided:
Hormonal changes make joints hypermobile. Cracking while pregnant increases risk of injury. Get professional adjustments from a prenatal chiropractor instead.
If you have osteoporosis
Bone weakness from osteoporosis heightens risk for spinal fractures. Avoid cracking and other high impact motions.
After an acute back injury
Let injuries like strains, sprains or fractures fully heal before attempting to crack the back. Seek advice from your doctor.
If you have back arthritis
Arthritis can cause facet joint stiffness. Cracking may worsen inflammation. Try spine-sparing techniques like massage instead.
If you’re taking anticoagulant medication
Blood thinners raise bleeding risk around spinal joints from excessive cracking. Check with your provider before cracking.
If you have numbness or radiculopathy
Numbness, tingling and nerve pain radiating down the leg can signify a herniated disc or pinched nerve. See a specialist before cracking.
Avoid twisting and popping the neck or upper spine if you have headaches or migraines. Sudden movements can trigger an attack.
In summary, cracking the back within reason can temporarily improve mobility and relieve discomfort. But it is wise to limit spinal cracking to 1-3 times daily and avoid forcing cracks. Special circumstances like pregnancy, osteoporosis, injuries, and arthritis warrant extra caution and possible avoidance. For persistent back pain or medical concerns, seek guidance from your healthcare provider on safe alternatives to frequent cracking.