Professional Opinion: Is cracking your own back bad for you?

loberle@islandpacket.comMarch 10, 2014 

Drs. Sean and Holly Matteo of Matteo Family Chiropractic


This week, Drs. Holly and Sean Matteo of Matteo Family Chiropractic in Bluffton talk joint popping, what is happening, and how to be safe with self-adjustments.

Question. When your back and shoulders are tight, cracking your back and neck can feel so good. But is it safe? Does it cause arthritis? Are some methods of self-adjustment safer than others?

Answer. So what exactly is going on when a neck -- or really any joint area -- pops?

Each joint in our body is an enclosed system that is pressurized. The pressure is created by the cells within the joint. When cells are working, they produce waste in the form a nitrogen based gas. This gas slowly accumulates in the joint, increasing the pressure.

When a chiropractic adjustment, self-adjustment or any form of manipulation is done, it opens up the enclosed space, releasing the gas and making a popping sound, much like opening a carbonated drink.

This sound by itself is not dangerous and provides short-lived relief when not performed by a licensed Doctor of Chiropractic. We advise our patients to gently stretch their neck going through six ranges of motion. We tell them never to grab their head and try to move it themselves. If popping occurs while going through gentle stretching, that's OK.

Self-adjusting is incomplete and does not correct the underlying problem, which is misalignment or compression of the joint. This is why people may feel the need to repeatedly pop the joint. When performed by a chiropractor, the problem is corrected, which removes the interference in the nervous system, thereby giving the individual more lasting relief. Self-adjusting does not remove the nerve interference, which is why relief is short-lived.

That being said, too much of anything can be bad. Repeated, improper manipulation of a joint can lead to ligament laxity, which destabilizes the joint.

The longer a joint is unstable, the more likely it is that arthritis will develop. This process is called degenerative joint disease or DJD. When the body senses instability, it responds by adding extra bone in the form of bone spurs, around the joint in an attempt to reinforce or shore up the joint.

DJD is caused by two things: repeated overuse or a sedentary lifestyle.

In both cases, the same thing occurs: laxity of ligaments and muscles around the joint and the loss of stability. This alters the biomechanics of the joint causing bone spur formation and loss of cartilage.

So occasional self-adjusting will not cause arthritis or DJD. But when repeated several times a day, every day, improperly over a long period of time it can absolutely lead to arthritis.

No matter what you do, be gentle with yourself and never force anything.

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