What Happens When You Crack Your Back?
Have you cracked your back by moving a certain way, stretching, or with the help of a friend? Sometimes cracking your back helps relieve pain or stiffness. At other times, hearing the pop and snap just feels satisfying.
So, what exactly happens when your back cracks? Is it dangerous?
There are ways to crack your back and they are generally safe for people who do not have back problems. Those who have persistent or severe back pain should consult with a medical professional, of course. Fortunately, healthcare professionals, chiropractors, physical therapists, and trainers can do more than just crack your back to bring long-lasting relief from acute or chronic back pain.
Anatomy of Your Back
A quick review of anatomy can help explain what happens when you crack your back. Your spine is a group of 24 individual bones, known as the vertebrae, stacked on top of one another somewhat like a deck of cards. The joints between the vertebrae allows your back and neck to move in a wide variety of directions. Misalignment of the vertebrae in your neck or back can cause pain.
Like your knee joint connects the bones of your upper thigh to your lower leg and your knuckles connect the bones of your fingers, the facet joints connect the bones of your spine. Your facet joints allow your spine to move and twist freely. Special capsules around the facet joints contain a thick liquid, known as synovial liquid, which cushions the ends of your bones and reduces friction when you move your joints.
What causes the “crack” when you crack your back?
Interestingly enough, scientists have not yet determined why your back (or your knuckles, for that matter) “crack” and feel better when pressure is applied to those joints. There are several theories among scientists and medical professionals.
Some believe that cracking your facet joints stretches the capsules surrounding the facet joint. The extra space provides more room for the synovial fluid to move around, which reduces pressure on the facet joints themselves. Reducing the pressure quickly like this causes the synovial fluid to suddenly release its gases in a process known as cavitation, and make the popping or cracking sound.
Others think that stretching the joints through pressure or by moving in a certain way can release gases, such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, which can build up between your joints over time. Poor alignment or swelling of the facet joints from poor posture, sitting for a long time, or even “tech neck” from using a phone or other electronic device may contribute to the accumulation of gases in the joints.
Why Does it Feel Good to Crack Your Back?
Whether by cavitation of pressure from the synovial fluid or from the release of gases between the joints, the release of pressure resulting from cracking your back can bring relief from pain and stiffness.
Cracking your back also releases endorphins, which are the body’s “feel good” hormones. Your pituitary gland produces endorphins to help your body manage pain. Endorphins also creating a feeling of pleasure, which could explain why cracking a joint is so satisfying.
Even the sound of a joint cracking can produce positive feelings of relief, especially when a chiropractor cracks your back during a spinal adjustment. In a small 2011 study, scientists recruited 8 patients undergoing care from a clinic for long-standing health problems. The researchers found that the participants associated the cracking sound with positive feelings of relief, particularly when the sound occurs as their chiropractor performed the adjustment. The feelings of relief occurred whether or not the joint was moved during manipulation, so the mere sound of a joint cracking can provide a placebo effect.
Can Cracking Your Back be Dangerous?
Cracking your back is safe and therapeutic when a chiropractor performs a spinal adjustment. These professional treatments should not cause major pain or damage the tissues supporting your neck and back.
Cracking your own back or letting someone other than a licensed chiropractor push on your back can be dangerous. Pushing on your back too forcefully or quickly can pinch nerves in or near your spinal column, for example, or it can strain or tear muscles to cause back or neck injuries. Cracking your back often can stretch the ligaments that support your spine to cause perpetual instability, a condition that can increase your risk for developing osteoarthritis as you get older. Doing it too hard or too often can injure the important blood vessels located in your back and neck.
The safest, most effective way to crack your back is to have a chiropractor do it. Your chiropractor can also diagnose the underlying cause of your back pain and stiffness, and suggest treatments that reduce your need to crack your back. These treatments may include spinal manipulation, exercises, and even laser therapy.
For more information on what happens when you crack your back, or to learn more about treatments for back, neck, or joint pain, consult with your doctor, personal trainer, or physical therapist.