If your neck is sore or stiff, it can be instinctual to begin rolling it as a way of finding relief. You may feel better because of the stretching, but you may also hear popping or cracking sounds that come with a sense of relief, similar to cracking your knuckles. This sound is not your bones cracking, but instead a release of air that has accumulated between your joints and ligaments, which is very common. However, this release is temporary, and the need to roll your neck may be a sign you should seek further treatment for neck pain.
The Mechanics of Rolling Your Neck
Your joints contain a substance called synovial fluid, which is a lubricant- think of grease applied to metal gears to help them operate smoothly and without friction. This fluid is made up of gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and oxygen. In the neck, there are joints along each side that form capsules, which can become full of gases. This leads to a restricted range of motion and potential pain.
Rolling your neck may loosen these capsules, allowing the synovial fluid to escape. This releasing of the bubbles makes a series of popping sounds which is most likely what you hear while rolling your neck- this process is also called cavitation. You should not hear this every time, as it takes time for the gases to build back up once they have been released.
Immediately after this release, you may notice less pressure and an increase in your range of motion, which is why many people find this an effective way of “fixing” whatever neck pain they are experiencing. However, it will likely occur again, requiring more cracking in the future.
Other Causes of Cracking in the Neck
While most cracking sounds are harmless, there are a few scenarios in which it may indicate something besides the release of air described above.
Chronic arthritis can be one cause of sounds during the movement of joints. In cavitation, the release happens quickly and is not repetitive. But in the case of arthritis, cartilage is losing its quality, leading it to become rough and likely to make noise. This may mean that you hear sounds over and over, even if there has not been adequate time for gases to build back up in your joints. Usually, these do not have any increase in range of motion or relief of pressure as a result.
You may also hear sounds in the neck in relation to snapping ligaments. Ligaments and tendons are the connective tissue that links your joints and your bones. These can tighten and snap, which may make a popping sound and feel like a slight displacement or realignment. Usually, this is associated with certain movements, stretches, and yoga poses.
Is Cracking My Neck Dangerous?
In most cases, rolling your neck to relieve the pressure is not harmful. As long as you are not doing it so forcefully that you cause damage, and you are also stretching the neck, there is no concern. The relief from temporary pain can be worth it, and there may even be an associated release of endorphins that comes from the habit. Because the sound is simply air, you do not have to worry about hurting your neck further.
However, the consistent need to roll your neck because of bothersome pressure may indicate a deeper problem. While you may get temporary relief from the act, it will not address this underlying problem in the same way a chiropractor would. If you notice signs of arthritis or snapping ligaments, you should also be cautious before continuing.
Additionally, if you notice a sudden and uncharacteristic stiffness in the neck, avoid rolling it because it could worsen any strains on the muscle tissue.
Addressing Neck Pain
If you notice constant neck pain and pressure, have signs of an underlying condition, or do not feel that rolling your neck relieves your symptoms, it may be time to visit a chiropractor. They will be able to perform an exam to determine the root cause of your pain and realign your neck in order to address this cause and prevent future pain and complications. Additionally, they may be able to provide alternative stretches and exercises to help you feel less stiffness. A chiropractor can improve your pain without medication, as well.
At AICA College Park, our chiropractors are dedicated to uncovering the underlying reason you roll your neck and creating a personalized pathway to a pain-free future. Call us today for your first consultation.