Evidence based

Neck Cracking: Can I Pop away the Pain?

Last updated: 
October 9, 2019
Abby Perry
Researcher and author
Dr. Juliana Bruner, DPT
Researcher and author, Physical Therapist

Many people who suffer from neck pain develop a habit of cracking, or “popping,” their necks. But what’s the point of cracking your neck? Is neck cracking a safe practice and does it really relieve pain and increase flexibility? What causes that popping sound?

We’ll answer these questions and more in this article, as we cover the reasons for why to crack your neck, how to crack your neck safely, and the risks of neck cracking.

Why would I crack my neck?

Cracking your neck can provide short-term pain relief if you have a stiff neck. You may also find that cracking your neck alleviates back pain and headaches. The benefits are limited, however, and studies show that neck cracking has only mildly positive effects and that the number of audible joint pops from spinal manipulation does not have a strong association with improvement in neck pain (1, 2).

If you feel that your neck pain warrants a major manual adjustment, speak to a healthcare provider about a referral to a chiropractor who can safely pop your neck joints. Some people who find relief from neck cracking or chiropractic adjustment may also benefit from physical therapy.

Summary

Cracking your neck could provide temporary relief from a stiff neck, neck pain, or back pain. But neck cracking is a short-term solution and ongoing neck pain may require a visit to a healthcare provider for treatment.

What happens when I crack my neck?

That popping sound you hear when you crack your neck is the result of “cavitation”, the bursting of gas bubbles, occurring in your joints (3). The “pop” noise can also result from the movement of your tendons and ligaments when you crack your neck (4). Some studies show that the sound of joints popping may have slight physiological benefits for certain patients, though the evidence isn’t particularly strong (5).

While cracking sounds can come from normal, safe moments within the body, they can also result from osteoarthritis or an injury. If you notice that your joints are becoming painful or swollen upon cracking them, talk to a doctor (6, 7).

Summary

The popping sound when you crack your neck may result from the bursting of gas bubbles or the movement of tendons and ligaments. Popping sounds can also result from osteoarthritis, so if your joints ache or swell after cracking them, you may have an underlying problem and should talk to a healthcare provider.

How do I safely crack my neck?

If you decide to crack your neck, start with stretching your neck by looking down and then up slowly several times. To crack your neck, you can then lie prone on the ground and move your body up and down with a foam roller beneath your neck. Alternatively, you can grasp your jaw with one hand, the back of your head with the other hand, and twist your head. If you choose the second method, then twist counterclockwise if your left hand is on your jaw and clockwise if your right hand is on your jaw.

For a more comprehensive spinal manipulation therapy program, consider seeking physical therapy or chiropractic care (8). A physical therapist or chiropractor can develop a treatment plan that will best address your pain or discomfort.

If you have a condition such as scoliosis, arthritis, or spinal stenosis, talk to a doctor about the potential risks and benefits of cracking your neck. You may need to refrain from cracking your neck yourself and instead request referral to physical therapy or chiropractic care to find relief safely.

Summary

Always slowly, gently stretch before cracking your neck. You can crack your neck by lying on the floor with a foam roller beneath your neck, by twisting your head, or by manual adjustment from a chiropractor.

What are the risks of cracking my neck?

In general, occasional joint cracking, when performed properly, will not cause long-term damage. However, neck cracking carries a risk of weakening or tearing your neck ligaments by stretching them out too much (9). If you don’t crack your neck correctly, you could cause acute pain in your spine or neck. And if you suffer from scoliosis, you can exacerbate your pain and the condition itself if you don’t crack your neck properly (10). Neck cracking also has the potential to cause wear and tear on the vertebrae in your spine.

Summary

Neck cracking is not especially dangerous, but the therapeutic effects are limited, and so cracking should not be overdone. Improperly cracking your neck could increase your pain, over-stretch your ligaments, or damage the vertebrae in your spine.

Is there anything else I need to know?

Neck cracking has limited side effects and may provide short-term pain relief or temporarily restore your range of motion if your neck muscles are tight. However, cracking your neck is not a long-term solution. The risks of cracking your neck are quite low, but you should take care not to twist too far. Cracking your neck too often, or improperly, could weaken your neck ligaments or cause injury, resulting in greater pain and discomfort.

Neck cracking should not cause pain, swelling or inflammation. If you notice any negative effects from neck cracking, talk to a healthcare provider.

If you find that cracking your neck provides you with significant relief, consider seeing a physical therapist or chiropractor. A comprehensive spinal manipulation therapy program that includes neck adjustment may provide more sustained pain relief and will limit the possibility of injuries.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Research Citations

Researched, written, and reviewed by:
Abby Perry
Researcher and author
Abby Perry is a freelance writer who brings over ten years of experience with work published in Entropy, Fathom Magazine, and Sojourners. She lives in the great state of Texas with her husband and two sons.
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Dr. Juliana Bruner, DPT
Researcher and author, Physical Therapist
Dr. Bruner is a physical therapist who is highly trained and skilled in helping people overcome their physical ailments to live the best life they can. She is also a writer who enjoys spreading knowledge about various topics in the PT and healthcare industry.
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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.

Our team of board-certified physical therapists, physicians, and surgeons strive to be objective, unbiased, honest and to present both sides of the argument.

This article contains scientific references. The numbers in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.