What Is That Cracking Noise? Could Constant Cracking Be Causing Your Neck Pain?

Could constant cracking be causing your neck pain?

Firstly, we have to understand what a crack is……

There are two main types of cracking that occur throughout the body.   There is the cracking noise that occurs commonly in our hips and the shoulders when those joints are moved through range. This noise produced is typically as a result of a tendon “flicking” over a bony protuberance, or otherwise known as a lump or bump. These cracks can be repeated over and over again just like you can keep plucking a guitar string. Is this good for you? Well it’s not great. You certainly need to see a qualified health care practitioner about it to make sure you are moving and functioning in the correct way.

The most common cracking noise that we experience in our lives is one that occurs within our joints.   Many theories have been presented as to what makes that “popping” sound.  Early thinking was that the noise was produced as the result of rapidly stretching ligaments as the two bones that form the joint are pulled apart.  Over the years technology has evolved and more in depth studies have revealed what we currently believe to be the reason behind the crack, as can be seen in this MRI video.

Most the joints within our body are synovial joints – that is, a joint that contains a viscous fluid known as synovial fluid in a fibrous capsule.  This synovial fluid, which is roughly the texture of egg yolk, helps absorb shock whilst also lubricating the bones and allowing them to easily glide past each other.  Like many other liquids in your body, synovial fluid contains lots of dissolved gas molecules…….and this is the main reason for the popping noise.

When placing enough force on a synovial joint to separate them father than they normally would go, the pressure inside fluid dramatically decreases allowing the bubbles of gas to be pulled from the fluid, much like when you open a can of soft drink.  These escaping gases combine together to create a larger bubble, creating that “popping” causes the noise we hear.

However that newly formed bubble doesn’t last long as the surrounding fluid presses on it until it finally collapses, releasing these gases to float around in the fluid until they are reabsorbed back into the fluid. Research suggests the whole process takes around 15-30 minutes. This is why once you have “cracked” a joint, you have to wait a short period of time before you can “crack” that joint again.

The reason some people believe this feels so good is that it temporarily enlarges joints, making them feel looser and more mobile for a short period of time.

When can this become problematic?

Let us start with the age old theory that cracking your joints will lead to degeneration of those joints.  Most of the teenagers out there reading this will be more than happy to find out there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest that repetitive cracking of a synovial joint causes early onset of osteoarthritis. That is not to say it has been conclusively ruled out, it just has not been proven. In fact a young man once decided to run an experiment on himself around this very topic, just to disprove his mother’s theory.  Dr Donald Unger decided to crack all the joints in his left hand every day whilst leaving his right hand untouched………for more than 50 years.  His got an x-ray of his hands some 36500 cracks later and found that both hands were completely free of arthritis.

But remember how we spoke about the joint you have just cracked being slightly enlarged. This enlargement will put extra pressure on the ligaments and joint capsule, causing a slight stretch to these structures. In isolation, or when performed infrequently, this will never cause a problem.

When performed repeatedly, continued slight stretching of the ligaments occurs, eventually causing the joint to become a bit more lax or loose than it should be.  This is where our brain kicks in and does what it does best – protect us. It receives messages from this slightly stretched joint that it is not as well protected from outside forces as it should be. The brain orders the muscles around that joint to tighten and protect this joint, which sounds like a great idea except that the increased pressure around that joint could now make it feel tight again. Bugger!

Oh wait – if you’ve been able to crack that tight feeling away before, why not do it again right?  “POP” we go again – instant relief as we have gas bubble formation, increasing the available range in the joint for the next 20 minutes and thus slightly stretching those ligaments……….hang on, slightly stretching the ligaments again? Bugger.  As we already know, the gas dissipates and then muscles around that joint tighten again as the brain responds to the slight laxity in the area.

So how do you get rid of that tightness then if cracking is only giving you the same results?

You seek treatment from a qualified healthcare practitioner.  As an Osteopath we would look for what is causing the problem, not just look at the problem itself in isolation. It is highly unlikely that an Osteopath would crack that particular joint if that is one of the principal reasons it is tight in the first place. This is not saying they won’t manipulate at all, just not that joint.  Should they (or anyone else) continue to crack the same joint every week you visit and you keep getting pain in the same area, it might be worth seeking a second opinion from another health care practitioner as they as essentially just reinforcing your pain cycle.

Moral of the story…….stop cracking your own joints!!!

-  Dr Vaughan Saunders

B Sc (Clin Sc) M Hlth Sc (Osteo)