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I fondly refer to you as a “crack” addict if you’re someone who can’t sit in front of me for even just a few minutes without tilting your head in an attempt to make your neck crack. Like with any addiction there’s a reason it started. It probably feels good – it gives you relief from some discomfort you might be feeling in your head neck or shoulder. But before you know it, you’re stuck in a vicious cycle that is out of your control and you’re cracking parts of your spine several times a day without even thinking about it.
For some people it’s the mid back crack that happens when you squeeze your shoulder blades together and stick your chest out. For others it’s the spinal twist that you do in your chair when you get stiff instead of just getting up for a minute to move around because you don’t want to lose your train of thought. Both are very common problems for our computer bound modern lives. Here’s more from my book preview on the danger of doing these kinds of movements.
The desire to crack comes from a sensation of tension, stiffness, or pressure. The cracking you do to yourself helps alleviate this discomfort. The reason this self-cracking becomes an addictive habit is because it feels good but more than that, it’s because joint “cavitations” (cracks) actually access a natural pain killing chemical feedback loop. But how long is the relief lasting for you before you need another “fix”?
The problem is that when we try to crack our own spines we are naturally not able to be very specific. The methods we use involve long levers (movement or stretching over a long distance from point to point) and so usually what ends up releasing and cracking is an area that is already hyper-mobile in the first place. The weakest link is what yields first. The joints that need the release can’t be accessed in this way and so, what we are doing when we crack ourselves in this non specific way is reinforcing the original reason for this tightness and pressure sensation.
Your body is really smart and when there is a hyper-mobile area of your spine that is doing an uneven, unfair extra amount of work, it’s generally because there are neighboring areas of the spine that have stopped pulling their weight – either they have jammed up or there’s been a mix-up in the messaging to that area because of prolonged one sided tasking or bad body habits. When the neural messaging gets mixed up sometimes muscles just turn off and stop working – leading to joint dysfunction. The muscles around the hyper-mobile segments of the spine will start to tighten up and over-engage in an attempt to help you stabilize this area that they are told, by the brain, is moving too much. So, when you squeeze and twist and stretch to get those already hyper-mobile areas to crack, what you’re doing is reinforcing the need of the muscles in that area to stiffen up. So, while the crack itself feels good because of the short lived release of pain killing endorphins, it’s actually feeding the problem.
Not only are you adding to the problem and creating a greater ongoing need for relief, your chosen method of relief (constant cracking) creates friction. Friction causes inflammation and as that inflammation builds it causes pain – in addition to the stiffness and pressure. (You can read more about inflammation and pain in this post excerpt from my book) Over time this friction related inflammation will cause real structural damage to your joints. This kind of damage over time can result in things like weakened and bulging discs, facet syndrome, formation of bone callouses or osteophytes. (click here for more on this in another post excerpt from my book about everyday pain)
Now you have a joint that is over-worked and irritated and if you keep up with the cracking you’ll also be disabling the more appropriate first line of defense in spinal stability and that is the ligament system. The ligaments are like guide wires that connect bones to bones and provide architectural integrity. Without good tone in the ligaments your muscles have to work overtime to protect your joints from excess movement. Your muscles should not have to do the job of your ligaments. But that’s often what we’re experiencing when we develop that desire to crack and pop ourselves.
The only way to break this cycle and get the joints that are really stuck to move again, is to have professional help. Chiropractors are trained to be extremely specific with spinal adjustments and our goal is to introduce movement only to areas that are not moving correctly. Restoring motion to segments that are stuck will alleviate the work load in those areas that chronically do too much. This is the only long term answer to the “crack” addiction that so many suffer from.
A healthy spine does not feel the need to crack. A spine that is moving correctly and to it’s full potential does not let you know that it needs a crack. A spine that has strong supporting muscles does not ask for this sort of attention.
If you think you might be a spinal “crack” addict, think about getting some help. Find a chiropractor who will work with you to make it a goal to help you feel that urge to crack with decreasing frequency. You also need to get some advice on what you can do specific to your situation, to stabilize your spine in order to help make your treatments last longer and avoid undoing all of the good work.
More on the cracking or lack of cracking of spinal adjustments in a future post…
What are your thoughts?