This is something that chiropractors come across all the time. Patients present with stiffness in their neck or back that is relieved by bending their spine until a crack is heard or felt. There are rumours that this can cause arthritis, so I thought I’d explain exactly what happens and whether “self-cavitation” (cracking your own spine) is any good for you.
What actually happens when you hear a crack when you move a joint has been described in a previous blog post, but most significantly you are moving a joint.
So why isn’t it a good thing? Let’s start with what is normal movement in the spine – it is made up of a series of joints between vertebra that allow movement (motion segments), each motion segment does not actually move very much but in combination all the motion segments in the spine the whole lot will move quite a bit e.g if you take two beads on a necklace they will never on their own go all the way round your neck, however if you add on 40 more beads the whole thing will easily bend to go all the way around. If two of the beads on the necklace become stuck together the necklace still works it just has a funny looking kink in it and the rest of the beads have to stretch a little bit more in order to make it around your neck. This is very much like what happens in your back when one of your motion segments becomes a little stuck – you can feel that it isn’t quite right but the spine as a whole still moves, what you can’t feel is that in order for the spine to still do its job the motion segments next to the stuck segment have to work a little bit harder, which puts them under stress, creating a potential weakness in the system. The reasons for segments in the spine to become stuck are many but can usually be boiled down to either postural or traumatic.
Now to stretch the analogy a bit further (see what I did there?!) if you want to fix your necklace you will try to get the two stuck beads to start moving more normally. Moving the beads around this stuck segment is quite easy but it’s a little bit fiddly to get the stuck ones specifically. You may get them moving by mobilising them gently or by giving them a quick flick either way you do have to be very specific or all you are doing is stretching an already stressed bead necklace. So if we take this back to the spine; when you stretch and move your spine in a specific way and you hear a click, do you think that it’s more likely that you clicked the stiff joint or the nice mobile joints around the stiff one? In most cases when you click/pop your own back it is the nice normal but stressed adjacent joints that are actually making the noise not the actual cause of your feeling of stiffness.
It does often feel good to click your own joints but this feeling is temporary and you soon have to do it again. This feeling of relief is due to the reflexive neurological relaxation that happens after a joint is clicked but it is temporary because the underlying problem of a stiff joint is not resolved.
The effect of clicking your own spine is to stretch the joint that is already mobile, making it even more flexible. That joint will be able to move further, meaning there is less requirement for the adjacent stiff joint to move at all (the body is lazy, if it doesn’t have to move bit of itself it won’t). Over time the joint that was originally stiff will begin to stiffen more and more. Continuing to self-click will not fix the problem it will just mask it for a little longer more.
For this reason, people who click their neck or back end up feeling the need to click themselves more and more often. Over many years, the repeated mobilisation of an already mobile joint will lead to accelerated wear and tear, or osteoarthritis.
The examination skills that a chiropractor uses when performing a physical examination take a long time to learn, and it is this experience and thoroughness that allows a chiropractor to find the joints of your back and neck that really need to be mobilised or “adjusted” and to pick the best technique for moving them.
And, let us not forget, that while doing this our chiropractors will be searching for and correcting the underlying causes of joint stiffness.
There is one last little secret that you might be interested in – the clicking/popping/cracking sound that you hear when the chiropractor manipulates your stiff joint is often the placebo part of the whole treatment! What is the important part is that the stiff joint is treated and restored to normal motion allowing all the other structures around the joint to return to normal too.