Whether it’s when getting out of bed first thing in the morning or after being stuck in a sitting position for hours on end, you probably “crack” your back more often than you may realize. In fact, 45 percent of people surveyed for one study reported cracking at least one of their joints on a daily basis. Is this habit relatively harmless or something you shouldn’t be doing at all? Here’s what you need to know.
Is cracking your back bad for you? The short answer is no, as long as you don’t make it a habit. An analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests cracking the back may provide short-term lower back pain (LBP) relief. Similar research also shows that back cracking is generally fine in moderation.
However, habitually popping or cracking joints, especially ones within the spine, may speed up the wear-and-tear process and lead to premature tissue or bone breakdown, which could ultimately cause degeneration severe enough to require surgical remedies such as disc replacement or spinal fusion alternatives. Los Angeles residents who often crack their backs should note that self-cracking on a regular basis may also contribute to:
• Muscle pulls, tendon strains, or ligament tears
• Compromised blood supply in certain parts of the spine
• Worsening pain if you have a preexisting issue in the part of the spine you’re cracking
“Back cracking” is simply the release of carbon dioxide gas that sometimes builds up around joints. Back in the 1940s, a doctor used X-rays to document the “cracking” process. This experiment resulted in the discovery that the popping sound heard when joints crack comes from a drop in the pressure of the liquid that lubricates joints (synovial fluid). A later study attributed the popping noise to a gas bubble bursting around the affected joint. Spinal joint cracking may also result from:
• Natural movements of spine-supporting tendons, ligaments, and joints
• Moving supporting structures beyond their normal range of motion
• Rough joint surfaces moving together to create a grinding sound
The consensus is that cracking your back doesn’t have any adverse or beneficial effects, unless you do it too often or have existing back issues. However, there’s still a lingering myth that back cracking increases the odds of developing arthritis, but there’s no evidence supporting this belief. In one study, researchers evaluated more than 200 people between the ages of 50 and 89 who habitually cracked their knuckles. They compared results with non–joint-crackers and determined the chances of developing arthritis were similar among both groups.
Some spine specialists insist that excessive back cracking can be bad for the spine, but it appears the real potential problem is unnecessary pressure on the soft tissues that support the spine. While there’s no conclusive proof that back cracking does anything beneficial, short-term relief may be experienced for the following reasons:
• Muscle tension is sometimes released if the cracking comes after a long period of inactivity (e.g., sitting at work all day)
• There’s a mental association between the audible popping sound and tension or pressure relief
• The joint cracking contributes to the release of hormones called endorphins that create a pleasurable feeling
You may be thinking chiropractors regularly “crack” joints, so why can’t you do it yourself and be just as relieved? The reason is because chiropractors and physical therapists carefully target the area of the spine that will be manipulated in a way that releases pressure without compromising segments already under strain. It’s not possible to get this precise with self-cracking, although, as mentioned above, occasionally cracking your back is generally considered fine. If you do regularly need to ease spine-related tension, consider gentle stretches or exercises such as yoga that naturally ease stress and increase flexibility.
Even if back cracking isn’t bad for you, if you find yourself doing it often to relieve pain in your spine, it’s a good idea to see a spine health specialist to make sure you aren’t overlooking an issue that needs medical attention. Choose a Los Angeles spine surgeon with experience and expertise to diagnose and treat your spinal pain. Call the spinal health experts at The Spine Institute today at 310-828-7757 and schedule a consultation.