It can feel very satisfying to crack your back, neck, knuckles or other joints. But as we all know, healthy joints are so important for maintaining full range of movement and avoiding long-term pain. So you may be wondering whether frequently cracking joints is harmful in the long run.
Let’s find out.
What happens when you crack your joints?
A 2015 study using real-time MRI technology suggested that cracking is due to the tribonucleation process which is where a cavity forms in the joint.1 Other studies have found that the cracking sound is actually due to this cavity partially or fully collapsing – what you might think of as ‘popping’.2,3
Despite decades of debate, the source of the cracking noise hasn’t been conclusively agreed upon. Either way, the important thing to know is that the pain relief associated with cracking your back is due to improving motion in the joint, better joint alignment or relaxed muscles, not the sound itself.2
What’s the difference between cracking your back and chiropractic care?
Chiropractors are trained to perform ‘adjustments’, which is a form of joint manipulation which directs the joint to move freely throughout its whole range of motion.
You might think that’s more or less what you’re doing when you crack your back. But the big difference is Specificity, a term used to refer to the way chiropractic adjustment directs an individual joint in a specific direction. A chiropractor’s extensive training allows them to manipulate your joints with this careful intent.
Cracking your own back isn’t specific at all and moves entire sections of your spine at once. It also tends to work on the joints that already move freely, rather than those that are stuck and may need some help.2
Will cracking joints cause arthritis?
There is no good scientific evidence to suggest that habitual joint cracking degrades your joints any faster than usual.
Perhaps the longest study into this potential side effect was undertaken by a doctor who cracked the knuckles of his left hand at least twice a day for 50 years – a total of at least 36,500 times. He did not purposefully crack his right hand, only allowing it to crack on its own, which was rare.
So what happened? After 50 years, he did not observe any difference between his hands and had no arthritis in either hand.4
So, is it bad for you?
Most research comes to the conclusion that cracking your joints isn’t actively harmful and won’t cause arthritis. However, if you experience any pain when cracking your back or popping other joints, you should stop immediately and consult an expert, because that could point to underlying conditions that need attention.5
And while it may not be harmful, because of its non-specific nature, cracking may only lead to temporary relief from sore or stiff joints. It doesn’t address the underlying issue causing you pain, as it may be working on the wrong joint entirely, not the stiff or misaligned joint that’s the problem.1
A chiropractor is trained to assess, diagnose and treat musculoskeletal and joint pain conditions. They use a range of different techniques and instruments in their treatments, tailored to your needs, which are more effective and long-term solutions that manipulating your own joints. So, book in to see your chiropractor today to start your journey to better spinal and joint health.
1 GN Kawchuk, J Fryer, JL Jaremko, H Zeng, L Rowe, R Thompson., Real-Time Visualization of Joint Cavitation., PLoS, 2015
2 N Petridis., Self Manipulation Vs Chiropractic Manipulation; Cracking your own Joints, Balance Life Health Care, 2021
3 V Chandran Suja, A I Barakat., A Mathematical Model for the Sounds Produced by Knuckle Cracking, Sci Rep, 2018
4 Unger DL., Does knuckle cracking lead to arthritis of the fingers?, Arthritis & Rheumatism, 1998
5 D Zelman, Will Joint Cracking Cause Osteoarthritis?, WebMD, 2020