Is Cracking My Own Neck Bad?
The short answer, if you don’t want to read this entire article, is simply: YES.
However, the reasons why may surprise you, and you may learn a little more about what is actually happening when you go to the chiropractor, if you stick around.
You might be asking, “isn’t that what my chiropractor does? Then why is it bad?” First of all, your chiropractor has gone through nearly 4 years of school, over 1,000 hours practicing in clinic, and 1,000’s more palpating the neck in school before even graduating. This is how they have become masters at telling which specific joints in your neck actually need to be “cracked.” There are 7 vertebrae in you neck (cervical spine) and 17 more in the rest of your spine. Your chiropractor feels each one, looking for areas that aren’t moving as well as the others (often a reason for the pain you are feeling). They then contact that specific vertebra and apply a short, quick thrust when the joint is at the end of it’s physiologic range in what is called HVLA (high velocity low amplitude) adjustment.
This differs from what you are likely doing for multiple reasons.
First off, the specificity is completely gone. Even worse, instead of adjusting the vertebra that is moving least, most commonly you are adjusting the vertebra that will go easiest (aka the loosest one). This can cause the joint capsule and the ligaments to stretch over time and even lead to instability in the neck. When this happens, the muscles around the area will become tense to compensate and can even contribute to the pain you are feeling.
Secondly, the distance and time is usually much greater compared to the typical HVLA adjustment. This prevents the muscles from being able to relax during the manipulation, requiring more force and increasing the chance of injuries including sprained ligaments or strained muscles.
Lastly, as with all treatments, consider the dose. Chiropractic treatments are most often delivered no more than two to three times a week. If you are adjusting your own neck once or twice a day for a year, that is up to 730 times. If you have tried a treatment that many times and are still experiencing pain, it is obviously not the solution, and as I mentioned above, may even be the problem.
“But this can’t be true, it feels good every time I do it”.
This phenomenon is very common and can likely be attributed to something called mechanoreceptors. These are nerve endings that are stimulated during the adjustment. They block out the pain fibers and send rush of good hormones to the head. This usually lasts for about 30 minutes, and then your pain returns to normal. This is simply masking symptoms rather than treating the cause, which is the opposite of what chiropractic is about. This is another reason that it can be such a hard habit to break.
But there’s good news. As with all habits, YOU have the power to stop it. The human mind is the most advanced object known in the universe. And even better, you have the power to control it. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or immediate. According to current research, breaking a habit typically takes about 21 days. But with this newly acquired knowledge, a little will power, and the helpful tips and alternatives below it will be a breeze.
“So what should I do instead?”
Firstly and most importantly, stop cracking! The urge will not go away immediately, but it will diminish each day. A helpful trick when you feel this urge is to simply move your neck. Try looking side to side 10 times each way, holding at the end of motion for 1 second each. This will activate the muscles, encourage movement, and hopefully take the edge off. A second option if this doesn’t do the trick is called Mulligan mobilization. To perform this simply take your thumb, apply it to the area of pain, look in the opposite direction, and apply pressure for 10 seconds. This may promote healing to the area without actually stretching the joint capsule. These tricks are simply to help you break the habit; improving the tissue is even easier.
If cracking yourself can cause instability, then stabilizing the area will be a major part in the solution. There are many exercises to strengthen the neck. Here are my favorite two:
- Chin tucks. For this exercise, sit up straight, and imagine the crown of your head is getting taller. Next, retract your chin into your neck as far as you can (make a double chin) and hold for 2 seconds. Repeat 10 times and try to perform 3 sets a day. This is a great exercise to do in the car to feel your head sliding up against the headrest. Perform 10 every time you are at a red light to help you remember.
- Isometric strengthening. For these, assume that same upright, chin-tucked position. Then with your hand push your head in all directions (10 seconds each) trying to keep your head from moving. If you have a band, you can use this instead for an additional challenge.
Massage may be very beneficial as well. The muscles have likely tightened around the area and massages typically provide relief. There are several at home tools for this including the Thera Cane or an over-the-shoulder battery powered massager you can find on Amazon. Going to your local masseuse is always relaxing as well, and you should always make time for self-care. However, the most cost-effective and simple option could be just rolling around on a tennis ball. Whatever works for you.
Finally, go to your chiropractor! The original vertebra that you tried to crack is still stuck. Let them put their training to use and restore the proper motion into the joints that need it, and leave the others alone. Additionally, they can address any other problems or questions you may have and give even more insightful tips, exercises, or stretches that will work best for you!