We use our necks a lot, even for the smallest things, so it makes sense that a good crack or two would bring relief, right? Much like the fairly harmless practice of knuckle cracking, easing muscle and joint tension in the neck through some snaps is often seen as a way to counteract all that downward-facing-neck stagnation. But, unfortunately, there’s a huge difference.
“Your brain stem isn’t running through your hands,” says Patrick Kerr, D.C., a New York-based chiropractor. “Cracking your knuckles affects the joints in your finger. But cracking your neck? That’s going to have an effect in your brain and along your spine.”
Yikes. Although it doesn’t always tweak your brain and/or spine, neck cracking could potentially cause harm not only to both of those, but also to tendons and arteries. Most people will simply exacerbate their neck stiffness, and Kerr notes that’s the most common outcome. But there are risks for big, scary outcomes as well. Most notably, you may tear vertebral arteries that lead to the brain, resulting in stroke. The incidence for that is very small, but since it can happen, it’s worth noting.
While Kerr adds that it’s safe to crack your neck very occasionally—and ideally, in an inadvertent way as you turn your head for other reasons—there are numerous reasons to refrain from making it an everyday practice.
Cracking your neck can actually make things worse, which leads to more cracking, which makes things worse… (You get the picture.)
Here’s a fundamental truth, according to Kerr: The human body has a pretty serious design flaw, and it’s called the neck. “You have your brain in a ball, essentially, sitting on top of this slender collection of tendons, arteries, muscles, and vertebrae,” he says. “That’s just bad engineering, really.”
As tension builds from activity—particularly the repetitive kind, like checking your phone or working at a computer—you can get out of alignment. The body’s response is to tighten your neck muscles so that they act as a splint to keep you from overstretching. But then, surprise! The good-for-you splint feels hella tight and leads to more issues in your shoulders and lower back. And that’s when the vicious cracking cycle begins.
“You know, on some level, that movement brings relief, so that leads to cracking,” says Kerr. “But then you begin to discover that it takes more and more effort to get relief. It becomes a habit.”
When it flips into habit mode, then the joint overstretches and becomes more lax, leading to more stiffness and soreness, which then leads to more cracking.
Letting someone else crack your neck is even worse
As much as cracking your neck can cause a constant spin cycle of muscle, joint, and tendon issues, that’s nothing compared to the hurt other people can bring down on you, even with the best of intentions.
“Literally, there isn’t a single day in which I don’t see injuries caused by a spouse or friend or teammate,” says Keith Overland, D.C., spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association. “Then, kids pick it up from watching their parents and ‘help out’ their friends with neck and back cracking. I have whole waiting rooms full of those people.”
The problems you might cause by cracking your own neck—more stiffness, pulled muscles, that scary stroke risk—are even greater when you have an untrained pal or significant other do the work. When you begin trying to stretch your neck out, you’ll have a feel for when pain starts being a concern, but your buddy won’t know that until it’s probably too late and some damage is done.
A professional can give you a good, tension-releasing adjustment, but there are other ways to get relief.
Lately it seems that around 98 percent of all action movies have the “death by neck crack” move, and some people fear that a visit to a chiropractor, osteopath, or physical therapist will turn the cinematic into the all-too-real.
There are some risks associated with an aggressive adjustment, but they tend to be fairly modest when compared to complication rates for other medical treatments, believes Overland. Still, there are always other options.
“There are many approaches that can be taken to reduce neck pain and help alignment,” Overland says. “The best approach is to talk with your chiropractor or other professional about what’s recommended. Certainly, if you feel uncomfortable about that particular adjustment, it shouldn’t be included in your treatment. If the doctor is insistent about it, then get off the table and walk away.”
Try some home remedies…
Maybe you haven’t yet gotten hooked on the crack track, or your neck pain and stiffness is still fairly minor. In that case, it’s easy to employ some strategies now that can be far more useful than some snap-crackle-pop action.
For example, former New York City Ballet dancer Brynn Putnam notes that a simple neck stretch at your desk throughout your day can help alleviate tension and fight the hunched-shoulder posture that’s become so common.
You can also focus on doing stretches that benefit the neck-shoulders-back package, like a reclining spinal twist or a classic yoga staple like bridge pose.
If your neck pain persists, then it’s likely time to get some professional insight so you can get back into alignment. “If you feel like you have to move your head all the time to get relief, that’s a dangerous path,” says Kerr.