Is ‘Cracking Your Neck’ or ‘Popping Your Knuckles’ Something to Worry About?

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May 2, 2019


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You may have heard your co-workers “cracking” their knuckles on occasion after long bouts of typing. Or you may know someone who can easily twist their head in one direction and “crack” their neck.

Or you may have read about the woman in the United Kingdom who recently cracked her neck while stretching and ended up partially paralyzed. Similarly, a 28-year-old man from Oklahoma suffered a stroke after stretching, or “cracking,” his neck and tearing an artery.

Generally, “cracking joints” or “popping knuckles” are not harmful habits — as long as you don’t overdo it or as long as it does not produce pain or discomfort. There’s also the social aspect of this nosy practice, which could prove bothersome to your co-workers who are trying to concentrate.

The cracking sound you hear from popping joints comes from tendons or muscles moving over the joint, or from the popping of nitrogen bubbles normally found in the joint space, explains Jose Mena, M.D., interventional spine specialist with Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute.

Tight muscles and tendons may fuel this widely accepted practice, which explains why cracking often occurs when you first rise from bed in the morning or when you get up from sitting for long periods in an office chair.  A person can’t crack the same knuckle or joint twice right away because it takes some time for the gas bubbles to accumulate again in the joint.

Very rarely would “cracking the neck” damage nerves, ligaments and bones, as in the case of the U.K. woman, who ruptured a vertebral artery — one of the major arteries in the neck.

“The cracking is basically nitrogen bubbles developing in the joint that are popping out,” says Dr. Mena. “It’s part of the mechanism of your body and a sign that there’s already some wear and tear. It’s mostly nothing to worry about. Some patients complain that they’re starting to hear their necks crack or their backs or other joints.”

Studies have not linked joint cracking to a higher risk of developing arthritis earlier than adults who don’t crack their knuckles or other joints. But adults already diagnosed with arthritis may want to avoid “cracking” to prevent weakened joints from undergoing additional trauma or possible injury.

If constant joint cracking is accompanied by pain or swelling, then that could be a sign that something is wrong and you should see your doctor.

“If you hear a cracking noise (after an injury) and you feel pain at the same time, then that’s a different story,” says Dr. Mena.

Sometimes, the injury isn’t very apparent, as in the case of “whiplash” during “fender-benders,” or minor automobile accidents.

“After a minor car accident, you may get ‘whiplash” and patients will start reporting pain may a day or 48 hours after the accident,” he said.

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