After sitting in the same position at your desk all day, you're ready to get up, stretch and move around. Hands on hips, spine arched, you let out a stretch and ...
Your back just popped.
It's an oddly satisfying experience, particularly since the sound it makes doesn't exactly seem like a good one. Those cracks and pops can make you question whether cracking your back is bad for you.
Why do joints pop and crack?
The exact mechanism explaining what happens in your joints when they crack and pop isn't completely understood. However, the general consensus is that the sounds result from the spine releasing gas that has built up in the joints.
One theory is that these gas bubbles naturally build up within the fluid that lubricates your joints over time. Another is that stretching your back puts the fluid within your joints under pressure, creating vapor-filled pockets within your joints.
"Regardless of why it's there, stretching or trying to crack your back releases this gas, which sometimes results in an audible popping or cracking sound," says Dr. Kenneth Palmer, an orthopedic surgeon at Houston Methodist.
Is it bad to crack your back?
Whether it's an unintended consequence of the occasional spontaneous stretch or an intentional thing you do regularly, back cracking has its risks.
"If you're gently stretching your back and it cracks or pops naturally, it's likely not something that's bad for you or going to cause long-term damage," says Dr. Palmer. "But if you're using forceful, quick movements to try to crack your back or if you feel like you need to crack your back regularly, that's when we start to worry."
Forcefully and incorrectly adjusting your spine can lead to:
- A pinched nerve
- Joint inflammation
- Muscle strain
- Blood vessel injury
"Since it stretches the ligaments, cracking your back could also potentially also lead to joint instability over time if you do it frequently enough — which, in turn, could increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis," says Dr. Palmer. "Your back is going to crack from time to time, but it's best to avoid trying to crack it yourself and letting it become a habit, especially for children and teens."
Also, does cracking your back even help? In some cases, maybe not. One study suggests that the cracking sound may simply initiate the placebo effect — which is when a treatment benefit is perceived even though one isn't achieved.
Other joint cracking is a mixed bag. Cracking your neck, for instance, isn't a great habit to pick up either, since doing so regularly can cause inflammation around important nerves. There are also the risks of adjusting your neck incorrectly, much like the aforementioned ones from improperly cracking your back.
There's better news for people who like to pop their knuckles. While some well-meaning adult probably told you not to indulge in the habit as a kid, the truth is that cracking your knuckles likely isn't as bad for you as urban legend has made it out to be.
No matter what joint your cracking or popping, though, it should never result in pain.
"If you experience discomfort or pain after cracking your back or another joint, see your doctor. It could be a sign of a larger issue that needs attention," warns Dr. Palmer.
How to stop joints from cracking
As mentioned, the natural cracking and popping you hear in your back from time to time isn't a huge cause for concern and isn't something that necessarily needs to be stopped.
It could be a sign that your back muscles are tight, though, which means you might benefit from doing some light stretching.
Dr. Palmer recommends gently loosening your joints via the following back stretches:
- Seated lower back rotation
- Lying lower back rotation
- Knee to chest stretch
- Upward stretch
- Bridge stretch
You might also try applying a heating pad to your back since heat can help reduce joint stiffness and pain.
"Importantly, if you're regularly trying to crack your back because it feels tight or is hurting, it's likely time to see a doctor — especially if gentle stretching isn't providing relief," says Dr. Palmer. "There are a variety of reasons your back may feel tight, and knowing the exact cause is important for getting long-lasting relief."
Plus, Dr. Palmer notes that cracking your back isn't the right self-care solution for any of the various causes of persistent back pain.