Do you find yourself sitting at your desk, “cracking” your neck or back throughout the day? I find that once a person discovers this ability, they tend to make it a habit. The relief that one experiences when popping their spine may afford them a temporary reprieve from their daily aches and pains, but is it doing more harm than good? I am chiropractor in New York City, and often asked whether “self-cracking” is good or bad, and how is it different than a chiropractic adjustment. Here’s my opinion:
Poor Computer Posture
Most of us sit for a significant portion of the day, likely slumped over a computer with our heads out in front of our shoulders. This type of posture puts a significant amount of strain on our spine, because of the weight of our head. Once your head moves in front of your shoulders, gravity starts having a field day on it. Why? It’s a matter of physics relating to our center of gravity. If your spine is correctly aligned in ideal posture, the supporting structures of our spine are in a neutral position, and require little effort to stay that way. It’s like stacking blocks in alignment. It takes no energy to keep the blocks from falling.
This ideal alignment offsets gravity’s effect on it, so it won’t topple over. However, if we shift a block out of place, eventually they might tumble. Therefore, it would be necessary to create a some sort of brace to hold the pillar of blocks in place. This takes energy or active effort. In the human body, we use our muscles, ligaments, fascia, tendons, and nervous system to do this. Once we shift out of ideal posture, these structure need to work hard against gravity to keep you upright. In the war of gravity versus the human body, I promise you, gravity will win every time. Our supporting structures will fatigue, become imbalanced, some will fail, and ultimately you will experience pain or stiffness. This discomfort is a system used to warn you that there is a problem. Ultimately, these poor postural habits will result in pain, possible permanent structural changes, and movement compensations.
So Why Does “Self-Cracking” Your Spine Give You Temporary Relief? Your brain senses the loss of mobility and stability and lets you know by activating pain-producing nerves. These nerves inform you there is something wrong. So instinctively you react to the situation. If you respond by self “cracking” your spine, you may activate some pain-relieving nerve fibers, which may temporarily shut down your warning system. This is why you experience relief. It’s similar to taking a pain-killer for an injury, the medication is used to block pain, but doesn’t necessarily help you heal the cause of pain.
Why is “Self-Cracking” Not Recommended? As I mentioned above, there is a reason you are experiencing pain or stiffness. You are overusing the supporting structures of your spine by sitting, standing or just living with poor posture, or injuries. Your body adapts by restricting range of motion (mobility), to create a more stable structure. It’s a simple solution, but not necessarily the correct one. By self-cracking, you are attempting to remove the restrictions, by using a non-specific movement (cracking), to force an increase in mobility. Ultimately, this may lead to hypermobility issues. If you break down the word hypermobility, it literally means “hyper” or excessive, mobility or movement. If the body loses mobility due to chronic overuse or injury, and responds by creating poor stability compensation, do you think it’s a good idea to make it even less stable to experience a few minutes of relief? Probably Not!
Why is Chiropractic Different? Chiropractors are concerned with movement and function. We want to see how the body is functioning overall, and we look for ways to improve performance. My patients will often hear me say, better performance equals better function, leading us towards achieving our goals of health, wellness, and a pain-free lifestyle. A chiropractor’s evaluation is very thorough, and the findings of the exam, determine when or where to apply chiropractic adjustments or manipulations (we don’t use the word “crack”). Chiropractic adjustments are gentle movements that help move spinal joints that may be restricted. We treat mobility and stability issues, using treatment plans catered to the individual’s need. Out of the 24 vertebrae in the human body, a chiropractor will only adjust a few segments to achieve this balance. Some patients need more therapeutic exercise than spinal adjustments, and others may require soft-tissue treatment, with no spinal adjustments at all, or a combination of interventions. No two patients are exactly alike, therefore everyone is treated by addressing their specific needs and goals.
Verdict: Don’t crack or adjust yourself, it’s very different than a chiropractor’s adjustment. Speak to a licensed chiropractor, and let them determine why you developed this habit. It’s always a good idea to have a check-up by a professional who can help lead you on the path to health and wellness.