Neck Cracking and Grinding: What Does It Mean?

Most people at some point have heard cracking or grinding noises in their neck upon movement. These sounds, also called crepitus, are usually painless and typically do not represent anything serious.

See Diagnosing Neck Pain

cervical tendons

Changes in synovial fluid pressure and moving ligaments and tendons can both cause neck cracking.
See
 Treatment for Neck Pain

However, if the neck cracking noise is accompanied by pain, swelling, or some other concerning symptoms, then it may represent a problem that should be checked by a qualified health professional.

Possible Causes of Neck Cracking

Crepitus, sometimes called crepitation or cavitation, refers to any type of noise or sensation such as a cracking, popping, snapping, or grinding sound that is heard during neck movement. For example, feeling a cracking sensation in the neck when turning the head to back up the car.

See Neck Strain: Causes and Remedies

Crepitus can occur in any moveable joint in the body, and there are many moveable joints in the neck. The neck joints are bathed in an oily-like substance call synovial fluid, which allows motion to freely occur in between the bones.

The underlying cause of crepitus in the neck is still not yet fully understood.

Some likely causes of the neck cracking sound include:

Synovial joint fluid pressure changes
Various studies have been performed purposely cracking the synovial joints of the fingers, but the conclusions in medical literature as to what is actually making the noise have been mixed. In particular, a study published in 1971 indicated that the cracking sound of a joint was caused by the bursting of a gaseous bubble in the joint’s synovial fluid.1 However, a study published in 2015 reported that the cracking sound was actually from the bubble being created.2

See Neck Pain Symptoms

Ligament or tendon moving around bone
Another possible factor in neck cracking could be the snapping sound of ligaments and/or tendons as they move over bones or other muscles or tendons located in the neck region.

See Cervical Spine Anatomy and Neck Pain

Bone on bone grinding
While an uncommon cause of neck cracking, it’s possible for bone to grind against bone if the cartilage has worn down. This condition is called osteoarthritis. It occurs gradually with the normal aging process, or it can be accelerated if there has been a traumatic injury such as whiplash or a sports-related injury.

When Neck Cracking Needs Medical Attention

In general, neck cracking most likely does not indicate a problem. However, a doctor should be consulted if neck cracking accompanies any of the following:

Cervical facet joints

Constant cracking that is accompanied by pain may signal a problem in the joints of the neck.
See
 Chronic Neck Pain: What Condition Is Causing My Neck Pain?

    • Pain or swelling. Neck crepitus with pain or swelling could indicate osteoarthritisor some other type of inflammatory process in the joints of the neck.

See Causes of Osteoarthritis and Spinal Arthritis

    • Recent accident or injury. If the neck is making new cracking or grinding sounds after trauma, such as a car accident or a fall, then that could indicate a structural change that needs to be addressed by a qualified health professional.

See Cervical Pain from Joint Degeneration

    • Frequent or constant. If the neck crepitus is constant, such as if that sound can be recreated every time or nearly every time the joint is moved, then that could signal a problem in joint function, especially when accompanied by pain.

See Neck Pain Treatment

    • Recent surgery. Sometimes new neck sounds develop after surgery in the cervical spine. These sounds might show up weeks later, and while they could be normal and nothing to worry about, they should be mentioned to the surgeon just in case.

Can Neck Cracking Cause More Serious Problems?

Some people regularly crack their neck on purpose—either due to a nervous habit or perhaps to bring some therapeutic relief from neck tightness. As such, it’s common for people to wonder whether repeatedly cracking the neck can wear down the joints and cause arthritis.

See Stiff Neck Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

The medical literature indicates that repeatedly cracking the neck, or any of the synovial joints throughout the body, does not increase a person’s risk for developing arthritis in those joints. However, some studies indicate other negative effects, such as loosened ligaments, could potentially result.

See Neck Strain: Causes and Remedies

In This Article:

  • Neck Cracking and Grinding: What Does It Mean?
  • When Neck Cracking Needs Medical Attention

While quite rare, and at the time of this article inconclusive, there are reports of vertebral artery dissection resulting in a stroke after certain types of manipulation of the cervical spine. There is debate if the vertebral artery damage is equally likely to occur if the patient seeks treatment for a health care professional who does not practice spinal manipulation. A review of the medical literature indicates that spinal manipulation of the neck does not appreciably strain, sprain, or stretch the vertebral artery.4,5,6,7,8

See Chiropractic Adjustment

As a standard precaution, anyone experiencing concerning symptoms such as pain, dizziness, lightheadedness, numbness, tingling, or other troubling symptoms not listed here, should consult a qualified health professional immediately.

See What Causes Hand Pain and Numbness?

The bottom line is that for most people the possible downsides of daily neck cracking appear to be minimal; however, the process is still not fully understood and continues to be studied by science.

See Diagnosing Neck Pain

References:

  1. Cassidy JD, Boyle E, Cote P, et al. Risk of vertebrobasilar stroke and chiropractic care – results of a population-based case-control and case crossover study. Spine. 2008;33:S176-83.
  2. Symons B, Herzog W. Cervical artery dissection: a biomechanical perspective. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2013 Dec;57(4):276–8.
  3. Haynes MJ, Vincent K. Vertebral strains during high speed, low amplitude cervical spinal manipulation. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2012 Dec;22(6):1017–8. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2012.08.002
  4. Herzog W, Leonard TR, Symons B, Tang C, Wuest S. Vertebral artery strains during high-speed, low amplitude cervical spinal manipulation. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2012 Oct;22(5):740–6. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2012.03.005
  5. Symons B, Wuest S, Leonard T, Herzog W. Biomechanical characterization of cervical spinal manipulation in living subjects and cadavers. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2012;22(5):747-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2012.02.004
  6. Wuest S, Symons B, Leonard T, Herzog W. Preliminary report: biomechanics of vertebral artery segments C1-C6 during cervical spinal manipulation. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2010 ed. 2010 May;33(4):273–8. doi: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2010.03.007

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