Don’t Crack Your Own Neck, Part 2March 27, 2013 • By John Olsen
Last time, we asked the question, “Is self-manipulation safe?” Now we’ll discuss the second of these 3 issues regarding self-manipulation: 1) Is it safe? 2) Is it useful? 3) Is it a sign of a deeper problem?
Is self-manipulation of the spine useful?
To answer this question requires us to explore the physics of the joints in the neck and back. The spine is made up of 24 movable bones that are connected by over 150 articulations (joints). Each of these joints is surrounded by a capsule of connective tissue and contains fluid. Each joint should move (some more than others). If a joint is moving normally, it typically does not make any noise. If a joint is “stuck” (hypomobile) or if a joint is moved past it’s normal range of motion (paraphysiological space is the fancy term for this), it usually makes a “cracking” sound. The sound itself is simply a bubble of air moving through the joint capsule. So far, we have described nothing harmful.
This is where things get tricky. For most of us, our daily activities of life require lots of sitting, lots of staring at computers, lots of driving, etc. These activities, for the most part, do not promote good spinal posture and motion patterns. Over time, spinal motion patterns can become altered to the point that some spinal joints move very little-to-none (hypomobile), while others compensate by moving too much (hypermobile). Joints that are hypermobile often make “cracking” sounds when they move.
For many, there is a gratification with this “cracking” or “popping” sound (“cavitation” in medical speak). It is easy to interpret this noise as “realigning a misaligned vertebra” or “releasing built-up tension.” In fact, some studies have suggested that joint cavitation releases endorphins, the body’s natural opiates/painkillers.
The goal of a spinal manipulation, performed by a licensed chiropractic physician or osteopathic physician, is to introduce motion to spinal joints that are hypomobile (stuck, or non-moving) while not moving the joints that are hypermobile (move too much). Knowing which joints to move and which ones to leave alone requires a lot of experience. Moving a hypomobile joint without disturbing the hypermobile joints around it is very difficult to achieve, and cannot be performed by oneself because of the limitations of leverage.
When spinal adjusting/manipulation is performed by oneself or someone who is unqualified (and especially by someone who thinks they’re qualified but they’re really not), most of the force of this manipulation is distributed through the joints that already move too much, actually worsening the problem in the long-run. Commonly the self-manipulator feels more and more frequent urges to manipulate – sometimes 20 or more times per day! The frequency of self-manipulation tends to increase with time.
When performed properly, spinal manipulation/adjustments are very effective in alleviating the tension/discomfort in the spine that cause one to attempt to self manipulate in the first place. With quality chiropractic care, the need for manipulation/adjustment decreases as normal motion patterns are restored to the spine.