For many people, there’s something about cracking your back that just feels so good. Let’s be honest: The intense stretch that leads to that telltale “popping” sound is so satisfying, not to mention an often-welcome (albeit temporary) relief to the tightness or soreness in your back or neck.
Of course, not everything that feels good is actually good for us. Is that the case with back cracking? We consulted experts to find out.
What exactly is cracking your back?
When you crack your back, you’re not actually, well, cracking your back. Nothing is splitting, breaking, or coming apart in anyway. “‘Cracking your back’ is a non-clinical term that usually involves a certain maneuver that leads to [a] popping sound,” Charla Fischer, an orthopedic spine surgeon at NYU Langone Health, tells Allure. “The maneuvers can include twisting, bending forward, or leaning backward. The popping sound is the movement of air pockets in joints.” And it’s the maneuvers, not the “popping” that alleviates the pain.
If you’re feeling the need to crack your back, it’s probably because your joints are out of alignment and it’s affecting the area around them. “When joint restrictions exist, it’s common that the surrounding muscles will tighten around that region, which unfortunately increases the stiffness,” David W. Flatt, a board-certified orthopedic chiropractor at Northwestern Medicine Integrated Spine Program in St. Charles, Illinois, tells Allure. “Improving the joint motion will decrease stiffness and likely improve the muscle tension, too.”
Are there any risks associated with cracking your own back?
In general, Flatt says that back cracking isn’t particularly risky — if it’s done by a professional, that is. “The greatest risk I see is with people that crack their spines too much on their own can create hypermobility of the joints, which could lead to increased pain and predispose them to increased vulnerability at those joints,” he says.
Fischer says she’s generally more concerned when people enlist the help of friends in the cracking process than when they try to do it on their own. “When a non-trained person assists in cracking a friend’s back, they can [pull, push, or twist] too hard, leading to a muscle injury such as a sprain,” she explains. And then there’s the popular “solution” of asking someone to stand or walk on your back to crack it, which Fischer is also averse to. “It’s too much weight focused in a small area of the body, which can lead to back muscle injury, spine fractures, or abdominal or pelvic organ injury.” First of all: ouch.
There’s also the fact that you simply don’t know the inner-workings of your body in the same way that a doctor who has thousands of hours of classroom instruction, lab experience, and supervised clinical work under their belt. “Imagine filling your own teeth, or…removing your own tonsils” Robert Hayden, a chiropractor in private practice, tells Allure. “The chance of injury would be significant. Trying to manipulate spinal segments without knowledge of the anatomy, structures of the bones, ranges of motion, the proper amount of force to use, and the angles involved could result in strain or sprain injuries, fractures, or neurological damage.”
A registered professional, like a chiropractor or an orthopedist, on the other hand, can much more safely address any issues you’re having. For example, Hayden says, a doctor will do a comprehensive assessment of your medical history and current problem — including a physical exam and possibly imaging — to make a specific diagnosis before even starting on an adjustment. “Then a doctor of chiropractic uses various techniques for spinal adjustments, physiotherapy, stretching, therapeutic exercise, nutritional changes, and possibly other clinical interventions,” he says.
Beyond the risks, it’s also worth noting that even if you do safely crack your own back, it probably won’t be as effective as when a professional does it. “People that ‘crack’ their own backs are not able to be effectively specific to the restricted vertebral level where the effect is needed most,” Flatt says. “Chiropractic physicians have extensive training in detecting and correcting joint alignment and motion problems using spinal adjustments.”
And, Fischer says, a doctor can help increase your own range of motion and make it easier for you to stretch when you are on your own.
OK, so what can you safely do on your own?
You’ll avoid the most risks by sticking with a professional when it comes to actual adjustments, but there are things you can do on your own to help relieve pain. Hayden suggests using cold or heat packs (or even alternating between the two).
Fischer says you can do stretches, either by yourself or with the assistance of a physical therapist or yoga instructor. “Laying on your back with your knees bent and letting your knees fall from one side to the other is a safe way to stretch your lower back,” she says. For the best results, take your time, hold the stretches, and get in a routine of doing them regularly. “Since most people only hold the stretch until they hear a pop, they are not holding the stretch long enough to be a long-term solution,” she says.
What’s more, stretching when you’re experiencing pain is just a temporary fix. Fischer adds, “A better long-term solution would be to do five minutes of stretching every day to help keep the back muscles from cramping and becoming painful.”
However, if the pain is consistent or you’re craving that “pop” often, it’s a good idea to seek the assistance of a doctor. “If someone feels the need to crack their own back again and again, it’s obvious that they are not effectively fixing their problem,” Flatt says. “Time to call in a professional.”
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