Have you ever woken up with a stiff neck only to turn to one side or the other and hear a cracking or grinding sound, or heard random cracks or pops when suddenly turning your head? If this happens on occasion, it is perfectly normal. However, if you’re hearing sounds like this on a regular basis and experiencing pain at the same time, it could be more than just muscle stiffness that will go away on its own. Santa Monica spine surgeons discuss the possible causes of neck cracking or grinding and when you should pay close attention to it.
What Might Be Causing Cracking or Grinding in the Neck Area?
Any type of noise or sensation coming from the neck is referred to as crepitus or crepitation. There are many movable joints in the cervical spine (neck), which are normally coated with an oily substance called synovial fluid that allows for smooth movement. There is no clear agreement on an exact cause of crepitus. A study in the 1970s suggested it may be due to a gaseous bubble in the synovial fluid. However, a more recent study suggested the sound was due to the creation of the bubble. Some people crack their neck as a nervous habit. There is no evidence that repeated neck cracking affects joint fluid, but it may loosen supporting ligaments. Other possible causes include:
- Ligament or tendon movement – The ligaments and tendons that provide support for cervical bones and discs may be responsible for some of the noises you hear from your neck. This is due to the ligaments and tendons moving over bone.
- Bone-on-bone grinding – If cartilage breaks down or wears away in your neck, bones may grind against other bones. Cartilage breakdown may be due to age-related wear or trauma from whiplash or a sports-related injury.
When Does Crepitus Need Medical Attention?
Neck cracking, grinding, or popping alone isn’t cause for concern. However, crepitus can indicate something is wrong within your neck if you are experiencing other symptoms when you hear sounds during neck movements. Some of these symptoms and signs include:
- Pain or swelling in the neck
- Nerve-related pain extending to shoulders
- Tenderness or muscle weakness in the neck
- Limited or painful neck movements
- Crepitus that develops soon after neck surgery
What Are the Treatment Options for Crepitus?
Treatment for neck cracking or grinding associated with pain or limited movement involves diagnosing and treating the underlying cause. Diagnosis attempts may involve a physical exam where your neck is purposely manipulated in an attempt to recreate the sounds you hear. Images tests such as MRI or CT scans may be performed to view soft tissues in your cervical spine. Treatment options may include:
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Physical therapy such as neck stretches and techniques such as massage therapy
- Surgery if bone spurs caused by bone-on-bone grinding need to be removed
Any time neck cracking or grinding is accompanied by pain, swelling, and other out-of-the-ordinary symptoms, make sure to check in with your doctor. Avoid possible issues with your neck beyond occasional stiffness by watching your head-shoulder alignment when using mobile devices, sleeping on a supportive pillow that keeps your neck and spine aligned, and doing some basic neck stretches to keep neck-supporting muscles flexible.
If you are experiencing chronic neck pain and are unsure about its origins or the most effective way to treat it, reach out to the expert spine surgeons at The Spine Institute. We specialize in minimally invasive procedures such as spinal cord stimulation and decompression surgery. Santa Monica patients should call 310-828-7757 today to take the first steps toward living a pain-free life.