What Happens When You Crack Your Back?

Jun 30, 2021Blog Post, Chiropractic, Low Back Pain

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Is the advice to never crack your back actually good advice? There’s lots of misinformation surrounding cracking your back being shared out there. What may sound like a troubling event as it’s happening is actually a fairly common thing. In fact, some people actually get relief and relaxation from back cracking. What’s more, describing the experience as “cracking” your back is actually a bit of a mistake because the sound that’s heard is the result of adjustments instead of actual cracking.

That doesn’t mean that it’s healthy to crack your back. You can actually create or exacerbate some pretty serious, painful conditions if you crack your back on your own. Asking someone else who isn’t a spine specialist to crack your back for you can create even bigger issues because the other person won’t necessarily know how much pressure is too much pressure. Take a look at what’s actually happening when you “crack” your back.

What Happens When You Crack Your Back?

The medical term for cracking your back is called “crepitus.” Again, this has nothing to do with cracking, breaking or separating any part of your back. The release that occurs simply happens to feel a bit like a “cracking” sensation. In reality, you’re actually adjusting your back when you crack it. While many people perform self-adjustment techniques that create the “cracking” sensation, others actually seek our professional chiropractic adjustments to get their desired results in a safer way.

The truth is that there isn’t full certainty about what happens when you crack your back. Most joint experts agree that the “popping” sound that is heard is caused by the release of synovial fluid from the joints in a gaseous form. Why does it feel so good? Each joint facet is a capsule-like structure located on the edges of your vertebrae. Stretching them gives the fluid inside more space to move around. It’s believed that this added space relieves pressure from the joints and muscles in your back.

Some experts think that bone grinding could be the cause for that cracking sound in some people. When cartilage deteriorates around a surrounding spinal joint, grinding and popping can occur. In this case, what sounds like a pop of relief is actually the sound of your exposed joints rubbing together. It’s obviously not ideal!

There are also theories that gases like nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide that are stuck between your joints get released when you stretch and move. The reason for the big “release” is that remaining sedentary for long periods of time in a less-than-ideal posture causes swelling in the joints. This is why most people get a craving to “crack” their backs when they get up from sitting for a long period of time. The reason why this feels good is that there’s a release from pressure and swelling. However, that release is only half the story when it comes to why so many people are “addicted” to cracking their backs.

Why Does Cracking Your Back Feel Good?

When you crack your back, the stimulation actually causes endorphins to be released from your body. Yes, the same feel-good chemicals that flood our bodies when we run a marathon or eat a great meal rush out when we crack our backs! This is no small thing when you consider that endorphins act on our opiate receptors. It may not be your imagination if you feel like you “have” to crack your back every time you get up from your seat. It’s very possible to become addicted to cracking your back. This is one of the reasons for that feeling of “satisfaction” that people report after cracking their backs. In addition to this very real physiological impact of back cracking, there is a little bit of behavioral modification occurring among people who crack their backs.

According to a study published 10 years ago, people who crack their backs can actually begin to make positive associations between the sound of cracking their backs and an immediate positive emotional feeling of relief! What’s interesting about this is that you could be convincing yourself that cracking your back is helping you even if it isn’t actually doing anything just based on the positive mental association that has already been made!

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Crack Your Back

It’s never wise to take chances with your back. While most people will happily crack their backs for their entire lives without running into trouble, you could be creating serious long-term damage without being aware of the danger. Take a look at some possible risks of cracking your back incorrectly:

  • Pinched Nerves: Yes, you can pretty easily pinch a nerve right near your spinal column if you crack your back really quickly. Yes, this can hurt very badly. A pinched nerve can be enough to send you to the hospital, keep you out of work and severely limit your mobility for an extended period of time.
  • Muscle Tears and Strains: Cracking your back also puts you at risk for muscle tears and strains around your back. The risk goes from your neck down to your hips. If you injure a muscle badly enough, you may be told you need surgery.
  • Ligament Stretching: This is one of the most serious long-term consequences of cracking your back. When we create permanent stretching of our ligaments, we actually put ourselves at increased risk for osteoarthritis as we age. This is a very painful condition that can severely hurt our health and mobility. It is also very difficult to treat and manage.
  • Injured Blood Vessels: Your back is actually full of important blood vessels. What makes the blood vessels in your back especially important is that some of them connect directly to your brain. Unfortunately, that means that cracking your back in the wrong way can put you at risk for life-threatening events like blood clots, strokes and aneurysms.

Signs That You Need to Seek Treatment for Cracking

While cracking your back is harmless most of the time, it’s important to be smart if something feels “off.” Here are some signs of trouble when cracking your back:

  • Pain of any kind! If you feel sharp stabbing or throbbing sensations after cracking your back, this is a sign of an irritated nerve root.
  • A “hot” sensation in your joints.
  • Cracking that won’t stop. While periodic cracking isn’t uncommon, constant cracking is. If you have a joint that is constantly cracking or popping whenever it’s moved, this is a big red flag. You may be dealing with a damaged ligament, damaged cartilage, bone-to-bone grinding, osteoarthritis or several other very serious conditions.
  • You feel your joints locking. If a joint is locking or sticking in place involuntarily, this is a sign of a problem. You may be experiencing deteriorating joints.

It’s also very important to pay attention to any changes in the way your back cracks if you’re recovering from an injury. If you’ve had any kind of injury or trauma, it’s possible that you have some structural changes going on that haven’t been detected. Many people actually walk around with fractures or ligament tears without realizing it following sports or auto injuries. It’s very important to have your joint function evaluated by a professional if your back is cracking more following an accident. What’s more, any changes in how your back cracks after an accident are also important.

Yes, You Should Probably Stop Trying to Crack Your Back on Your Own

If you’re in the habit of cracking your back, you’ve probably noticed something already. While cracking your back may feel good in the moment, it doesn’t actually offer any long-term benefits. It could actually be causing or exacerbating some undetected underlying conditions with your spine that are only going to grow more serious if you don’t address them now.

Seeing a chiropractor for adjustments is a much better way to get all of the benefits you think you’re getting from cracking your back on your own. The results will create a world of difference once you experience a professional adjustment done by a chiropractor with the understanding of your spinal anatomy to actually provide relief and align your joints according to their intended range of motion. You can even learn some exercises you can do at home to get relief from tension and tightness without cracking your back.

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