If you've ever cracked your knuckles, then you know how satisfying those pops and snaps can be. And same goes for twisting and popping your back, your neck, and other joints. It can feel relieving, but you've probably wondered if cracking your joints is bad for you. Does is cause health problems? Or lead to arthritis?
Well, there is some good news — at least regarding your knuckles. "I would like to dispel the myth that habitual cracking will give you arthritis," Dr. Scott Schreiber, a chiropractic physician, tells Bustle. "This is not the case as it has been studied and proven incorrect."
You're also not actually "cracking" anything, when you push down on a joint. "The sound you hear is the audible release of gas, mostly nitrogen, from the joint," Dr. Christopher Brown, aka The Back Whisperer tells Bustle. "This gas inevitably re-accumulates over time, producing the feeling of a need to crack. Periodic release of this gas can actually be beneficial to the health of the joint."
So if it feels good to pop your knuckles, go ahead and do it. But when it comes to your back or neck, it may be a good idea to turn to the professionals — especially if you're having pain. "For specific joint therapy you should really seek out a licensed chiropractor to perform therapeutic joint manipulations when and where needed," Brown says. They can do so in a safe and helpful way, that won't lead to any damage.
It's OK to do the occasional back crack on your own, but keep in mind that trying to pop your joints — especially if you twist too far, or ask a friend to do it — can be dangerous, and may lead to some of the issues mentioned below. Here are seven reasons experts say to stop cracking your joints.
1. You Can Cause Hyper-Mobility
Do you ever twist in a chair, and get that pop all the way up your spine? If you want to do this occasionally, that's fine. But "by repeatedly popping the same area of the spine, over time the joint can become hyper-mobile," Melinda Sganga, a physical therapist at FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Center, tells Bustle. "This instability then will place one at greater risk for joint misalignment and potential injury."
2. You Might Pull A Muscle
Twisting your back can cause other types of damage, too. "If your back or neck are naturally cracking, that’s all good — enjoy the feeling," Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of DrAxe.com, tells Bustle. "But if you’re purposefully cracking these because you’re experiencing pain and want some relief, you’re putting yourself at risk for things like over-stretched ligaments, misalignment in your back or pulled muscles, all of which are likely to restrict your mobility and cause more pain." If you are experiencing pain, it may be a good idea to seek help from a doctor rather than trying to relieve the pain on your own.
3. You Might Stretch Your Ligaments
Cracking your joints can lead to something called "ligament laxity," which is an over-stretched ligament. And it applies to all your joints.
"Ligament laxity is a term used when you stretch the ligaments beyond their normal anatomic length ... Over time the joints become very loose and the muscles will attempt to stabilize the joints by contracting," Schreiber says. "This creates an overuse scenario and results in increased stiffness and pain; now caused by both loose joints and muscle overuse. The more tight you are, the more you'll want to 'crack the joints.' It's a vicious cycle."
4. You Can Cause Nerve Irritation
Cracking your back can even affect your nerves, since there are a lot of them in and around your spine, so proceed with caution. As Schreiber says, "If you already have a disc issue, it can make it worse. Nerve irritation can also occur."
5. You Might Misalign Your Spine
"When it comes to your back and neck ... you should not be intentionally cracking those. That can cause serious problems like misalignment of the spine ... that can lead to immobility," Dr. Raul Serrano, DC tells Bustle. Although that is a worst case scenario, it's much smarter to leave your spine alone or see a professional for help.
6. You Might A Experience Stabbing Pain
You should be careful when cracking your knees and your ankles too. "[P]opping these joints at will is a little more difficult than, say, cracking your neck, so the potential for injury is a lot slimmer," Axe says. "Like your knuckles, cracking knees and ankles is fine if you’re not experiencing pain. If you do find yourself wincing in pain when these joints crack, however, get thee to the doctor."
The pain might be a sign you hurt your joint, which is why it may be better not to crack and re-crack these joints to begin with, says Axe. While there's a slim chance that you'll hurt yourself, why take the risk?
7. It Can Lead To Tightness
You might not get arthritis, but your joints can become stiff over time if you crack incessantly. "The self cracking is a short-term fix, but can lead to increased stiffness in the future due to the muscles attempting to stabilize the joints," says Schreiber.
If you feel like you need to crack your joints all the time, it may be due to an underlying problem that's much better handled by a specialist, like a chiropractor. A trained professional can help treat joint issues in a way that's not damaging, and get you back to feeling like your old self again.