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The Truth About Cracking Your Own Back: Is It Harmful or Helpful Long-Term?

The Truth About Cracking Your Own Back: Is It Harmful or Helpful Long-Term?

If you're in the habit of cracking your back or other knuckles on a regular basis, you're in good company: nearly half of the population cracks knuckles or other joints at least once a day. It's quite common to crack one's back first thing upon waking up or right before a workout.

However, just because a habit is common doesn't mean it's necessarily good or bad. If you've ever worried about causing potential harm to yourself by cracking your own back, this is the guide for you!

What Is the Purpose of Your Spinal Cord?

First, we need to discuss some biomechanics. Specifically, we need to focus on your spine and its component parts. One of the most important parts of not only the back but also the entire human body is your spinal cord. This structure contains 31 pairs of nerves that send messages between your brain and the rest of your body.

The spinal cord is protected by two dozen vertebral bones that, combined with spinal discs that cushion the space between each vertebra, make up the rest of the spine. The three major sections of your spine are the cervical spine (the upper part of your back, including your neck), the thoracic spine (the mid- and upper body below the cervical area), and the lumbar spine (your lower back).

Surrounding all of this is the series of ligaments, muscles, and tendons that your back needs in order to move your entire body. All these systems working together is what makes it possible for your back to bear your body's weight throughout your life. 

Why Does Your Back Make a Cracking Noise?

The truth is that scientists aren't 100% sure what causes your spinal joints, knuckles, and other joint bones to make an audible crack when put under tension. One of the most common theories is that gasses such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide build up over time into bubbles. These gasses come from synovial fluid, a lubricant that helps the cartilage in your joints stay healthy.

According to this theory, cracking those same joints causes a release of pressure and makes those gaseous bubbles rupture. The subsequent release of gas then escapes from joints and creates that "popping" or "cracking" sound we're all so familiar with, followed by temporary relief.

One of the earliest studies related to this theory was published back in 1947. However, in that study, the doctors concluded that it was actually the formation of a gas bubble that created the popping sound.

Subsequent research in 2015 supported the conclusion of the 1947 study, further suggesting that the air pressure created in the joint by the formation of the noisy bubble also explains why you can't crack your joints again immediately after cracking them the first time.

Either way, it seems relatively certain that most back-cracking noises and the consequent feeling of relief originate from gaseous bubbles, whether it's the formation or the release of those bubbles that lead to the pops.

Sometimes, tendons and ligaments can also make something of a snapping noise when returning to their original position, and arthritic joints can rub together to create a grinding sound. These causes of joint cracking and popping sounds are less common, however. 

Benefits of Cracking Your Back

There isn't a lot of research to suggest that cracking your own back has a lot of physiological benefits. While some people point to the release of endorphins as the reason why back- and knuckle-cracking by themselves feel so good, at least one study suggests that simply hearing an audible pop leads to a positive feeling, whether or not the back-cracking created a change in their joints.

However, just because there may not be a proven physiological reason for back-cracking doesn't mean you should automatically discount it. If an audible "crack" tricks your brain into thinking you've released some of the constant pressure built up throughout your workday, you could still feel relief from stress.

In other words, cracking your back safely at home can potentially make you feel better, even if it's not healing you from any poor posture or similar chiropractic concerns (those are better treated with ergonomic chairs and proper posture).

f you want to make your back feel good in a safe way, follow these tips:

  • Focus on stretching out your back muscles, not cracking your back itself.
  • Use slow movements! Doing back exercises is never a good time to rush.
  • Never stretch your back far beyond your comfort zone!
  • Carefully stretch in both directions.

If your back is still acting up despite these gentle stretches, you should consider seeing a professional chiropractor or physical therapist.

Drawbacks of Cracking Your Back

Despite popular claims to the contrary, there is no conclusive evidence that cracking joints (especially your knuckles) causes arthritis or similar adverse effects. When done rightly, cracking your own back may help your back feel better. Still, it's possible to hurt yourself if you aren't careful.

If you stretch your back muscles too quickly or well beyond your comfort level, you could cause some damage. For instance, an overly forceful back crack can pinch one or more spinal nerves, which can limit your daily mobility and cause a lot of pain.

Careless back-stretching also runs the risk of tearing or weakening muscles and ligaments in your back. Weakened ligaments and muscle strains will prevent you from developing long-term stability, which can affect both your regular life and your athletic performance.

All of these risks are especially likely if you crack your back several times a day, rather than every so often or even just once a day. This is because putting excess pressure on the various parts of your back too often can wear them out over time, leading to problems later down the road.

When You Shouldn't Crack Your Back

The long and short of it is that you shouldn't crack your own back if you have a back injury or if you are unwilling or unable to crack your back in a safe manner.

If you have a chronic or acute back condition, you probably won't be tempted to crack your back in the first place, as putting that kind of applied pressure on your spinal column can be nearly unbearable. Still, some part of you might think that getting a good back crack just might make things feel better.

Unfortunately, any back pain relief caused by cracking your own joints is unlikely to make up for the agony you'll feel while trying to crack your back, so it's best to consult a chiropractor near you. In addition, as we discussed above, this kind of self-management done improperly can even cause further pain through increased pressure on your spinal muscles, tendons, nerves, and ligaments.

Other Self-Chiropractic Methods to Pay Attention to

Like cracking your back, popping or cracking the knuckle joints in your fingers is a form of self-chiropractic. For some people, it's a form of stress relief. For others, it's a lifelong habit or an idiosyncratic tic along the lines of pencil chewing and nail-biting. The same goes for cracking your neck, knees, and toes as well.

The rules and tips about cracking your own back apply to these self-chiropractic methods as well. Go slowly, don't do it more than once every few days, and don't stretch beyond your limits. This is especially true for your neck, which you should never stretch with the help of your own hand due to the unsafe level of pressure this places on your cervical spine.

While making your own joints pop is usually okay when done safely and in moderation, be on the lookout for any swelling or long-lasting pain. These signs are out of the ordinary and should be enough to send you to a licensed chiropractor or other joint or spine specialist as soon as they appear.

Contact Deep Roots Chiropractic Health Center to Schedule an Appointment Today

If you're one of the millions of folks looking for relief from joint, back, and neck pain, then you need to contact Deep Roots Health Center. Our chiropractic specialists are ready to help you with gentle, non-invasive treatments that will put you on the path toward better health!

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