It is not uncommon for people to crack their knuckles or neck at home in order to relieve stress. It appears to be perfectly harmless. However, people may assume that cracking other joints, such as the vertebrae of the back, may also be a harmless way to relieve tension at home without having to visit a chiropractor. Although cracking the back at home may seem to be a good idea in theory, Dr. Nathen Horst cautions that in the long run, it is far better to get a spinal adjustment from a chiropractor than to do it yourself.
What Actually Causes the Cracking Sound?
There can be several causes for the cracking sound that joints make.
Escaping gas in the synovial fluid: In the case of relatively healthy joints in the fingers, the cracking sound is actually caused by the release of gas from the synovial fluid between joints. Synovial fluid acts as a lubricant in the joint capsule, between the cartilage covering both bones in the joint. The synovial fluid normally contains oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide gasses. Cracking the joint will stretch out the joint capsule, which in turn, will cause the synovial fluid to rapidly release gasses. This release causes the cracking or popping sound. The joint cannot be cracked again until the gasses have built back up in the synovial fluid.
Movement of joints, tendons, and ligaments: When a joint moves, the tendons to which it is attached may change and shift out of position. In this case, the popping or cracking sound comes from the tendons going back into their normal position. This will happen most often with the knee or ankle joints.
Arthritis: In osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage in the joint capsule has worn away, leaving rough joint surfaces to directly rub against each other. As a result, bone spurs will form and the amount of synovial fluid will increase. The joint will feel stiff and painful, and will make a popping sound as it moves.
Is it Safe to Crack the Back at Home?
For the most part, cracking the knuckles is not very harmful. Some studies have shown that it may do some damage to the soft tissues and lead to swollen hands and reduced grip, but overall, the research is inconclusive.
However, the spine is a much more complicated structure. Although stretching and yoga may cause the back to crack on its own, that is usually from a relatively mild force. Most people will inadvertently apply too much pressure to the vertebrae in a deliberate effort to crack their back on their own. This can weaken the surrounding ligaments and muscles, which can actually end up increasing back pain over time. Furthermore, as a person ages, their back is not as flexible, so cracking the back may not cause any relief, or may actually make it worse.
Dr. Horst strongly recommends coming in for a proper spinal adjustment for a tight or painful spine. In the hands of a chiropractor, an adjustment can do wonders to relieve back pain.
Contact Dr. Nathen Horst to schedule an appointment.