Cracking your neck can be so satisfying when tension-filled knots leave you feeling sore, but it can actually be a riskier move than you might think. Many people crack their neck for instant relief—or as a result of injury, or a chronic, underlying condition—without realizing it can actually cause long-term damage, says Marianne Ryan, an NYC-based physical therapist and author of the book Baby Bod.
Here’s why cracking your neck can be dangerous
Your neck is the start of two things in your body: your cervical spine—which is made up of seven vertebral segments, muscle tissue, and nerves—and your spinal cord, which is made up of nerves connecting to the brain, says Kellen Scantlebury, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., CEO of Fit Club NY. As a whole, your neck is an extremely sensitive structure that controls your mobility, the ability to scan your environment, and sensations in the body, he explains. Typically, when you crack your neck, what you’re actually doing is realigning your cervical spine. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every time you crack your neck that it’s because the cervical spine is out of place. Note: In an optimal, neutral position, the cervical spine has an anterior curve to it, while each individual vertebra is stacked one on top of the other via a flattened surface called the facet joint, explains Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and yoga teacher.
What’s more, the cracking noise or “pop” you hear when you stretch and put pressure on these joints isn’t necessarily problematic. “When you twist or yank on your neck, the surfaces can slide against each other and either realign, or make noise, or both,” says Heimann. “We are 60 percent water, and other fluid structures that get less fluid and drier make noise,” she explains. Putting pressure on the area adds to that noise.
It’s when the spinal nerves and their pathways get impeded that cracking your neck can get risky. “Think of the spinal nerves coming off of the spinal cord like off-ramps coming off of a major highway,” says Dr. Chad Woodward, principal director at SYMBIO Physical Therapy and Wellness. “The highway is the spinal cord, the central path for all communication to the brain. The spinal nerves exit the vertebrae like off-ramps—acting as smaller pathways for specific jobs.” The problems can arise when that opening or exit ramp for the spinal nerve gets “compressed,” or when “the off-ramp gets backed up with traffic,” explains Woodward. “If someone cracks their neck too aggressively, it can cause compression of that space and irritate or even damage these nerves.”
As a result, serious side effects can include tearing a wall of critical blood vessels in your neck, blood clot, stroke, and paralysis, adds Dr. Robert Glatter, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health.