Is it bad to crack your back or neck yourself?

Is it bad to crack your back or neck yourself?

One question that we get all the time here at Nightlight Chiropractic is: Is it ok to crack my back or neck myself? We’re talking about adjusting yourself. Self-manipulation is what it’s called in the chiropractic literature. It’s when you use your own body, or your own hands, or something else to make your own joints crack, and move, and adjust.

Get to Know Your Spine

We’ve talked before about what the spine looks like and how it’s shaped. Basically, each spinal segment is connected to the next with two joints in the back. Those joints function very similarly to your knuckles. They’re a joint space. They’re surrounded by synovial fluid. They pressurize. You can crack that. Then you expand it just a little bit so that the joint depressurizes. That’s what you’re doing when you self-adjust, or self-manipulate, or crack your own back.

Why go to a Chiropractor?

We get this question all the time: Why would I go to a chiropractor when I can just crack my own back? The answer to this question is not as simple as you think. We scoured the literature to get the real answers about self-manipulation.

It’s always recommended to have a spinal professional, be it a chiropractor, an orthopedic doctor, or a medical doctor, look at this for you. Cracking your back isn’t generally harmful, and there’s a long, long history of people doing this. You don’t typically see any negative side effects to self-adjusting or self-manipulating, except the problem is when you do, the side effects go from very mild to horrible, debilitating, and potentially deadly.

Oftentimes, what you’re doing when you’re adjusting yourself versus having a chiropractor adjust you,  you’re moving the easiest joint to get moving in your spine. When you crack your knuckle, you know exactly what joint you just moved, right? But when you are moving your spine, oftentimes, you can’t even differentiate one level from the next because there are 24 movable parts. Each one of those has multiple joints attached to it. What you end up with is maybe moving the easiest, movable joint. Your body shoots out these endorphins, so it makes you feel like you’ve done a good thing, and you feel good, except the problem is, is that your pain comes right back. Whether it’s 20 minutes, a half-hour, whatever it is later, you end up back with the same pain that you just had before you cracked your own neck or your own back.

Did you really do any good? Probably not. If you take the hypermobile joint and move that, you’re not going to get much benefit from it. You’re going to get a quick 10, 15 minutes of endorphins pumping, a little bit of time for your joints to be stimulated, your brain telling you that you feel good. After that, your pain is coming to rip right back because you didn’t actually fix what was going on. When a chiropractor does this, it’s different than what you can do to yourself because we find the joint that’s stuck and then get it moving.

As a chiropractor, I cannot adjust myself very well either. I can’t figure out exactly what’s stuck in me. Dr. Bass makes fun of me all the time, right, because he’ll come in and I’ll be shaking and moving, and he’s like, “You just can’t get it, can you, doctor?” That’s the truth. You cannot adjust yourself as well as you can adjust somebody else, even when you’re a chiropractor.

What is a Good Release?

What does it mean when you get a good release? A good release means that you have gotten the joint that was hypomobile, which means not moving very well, and pressurized. You got it to cavitate, which means it’s moving better than it was when you started. When chiropractors or individuals talk about a good release, they’re talking about finding the joint that was stuck and not moving and then getting that joint moving again. But if your pain is coming right back within minutes of you doing this, then I would argue that you’re doing yourself a disservice. You should go see a spinal professional.

When it’s ok to Crack your Own Back

If you stretch and crack your back once when you wake up, and then you don’t have to do it for the rest of the day, go for it. There’s going to be somebody that shows this to their chiropractor. They’re going to say, “That’s dangerous. That’s so scary. Why would a chiropractor be saying that?” It’s because it’s true. I’ve looked in the research. I’ve looked at it. I looked at the same research that you’ve looked at. I can tell you what’s going to cause injury, what’s not going to cause injury.

Understand that if it’s not painful when you’re doing it, and it gives you relief all day so that you do not have to do it again and again, then it’s probably safe and has probably nothing harmful to it for you. If it hurts when you’re doing this, when you’re self-adjusting, self-manipulating, popping your own back, whatever, you need to stop. You need to not do that again. You need to go see a professional because there’s some joint damage and muscle strain that can happen.

It’s safe to stretch gently. If something goes pop, then that’s what you get, and that’s fine. If you’re getting cracking, if you’re getting an adjustment, if you’re getting a self-manipulation from just stretching a normal kind of range of motion, go for it. If you can just wiggle your head a little bit, and it pops and clicks, go for it. There’s nothing negative about that. If you have to force something, say, use your hands to wrench your neck, or use a chair to kind of spin around in, use some other device, I don’t know if they’re beneficial for you. Be careful if you have a device that you use to get your back to pop.

I recommend foam rollers all the time, but only for stretching, not for popping your back. You can use foam rollers to get a great stretch in your spine and your joints. Sometimes those joints might even cavitate, but we see injuries from those rollers as well because people like to bounce on them. People are bouncing on them and injuring ribs, and they even end up with some fractures occasionally. Any time you’re using a device to help you crack your back, be extra, extra careful because a lot of these injuries that aren’t even reported in the literature come from those devices.

Dangers of Self-Manipulation

I want to talk to you about the worst-case scenario for self-manipulation. That is ending up dead. If you look at to see the real research, and you type in self-manipulation, you’ll see the worst of the worst cases where somebody has been trying to crack their own neck, and they’ve ended up causing a vertebral artery dissection and then death.

If you’re ever stretching your neck, make sure there’s no rotation because rotation has the potential to be deadly. That is the worst-case scenario. And I don’t recommend having someone else help you with adjustments. The worst that we’ve seen here is somebody who’s walking on somebody else’s back. They slide off just a little bit, break a rib. You end up in the emergency room instead of the chiropractor. It’s a whole different ballgame.  Don’t be doing that. If you’re lifting somebody off the ground, the risk of tearing a nerve root becomes a real injury. You don’t want to be doing that. If it takes somebody else, see a professional instead of having a friend or family member do it.

The Best Self-Care Between Chiro Appointments

In between your appointments at our office, you should be stretching. You should be active. You should be getting motion. You should be doing all kinds of other things to avoid running into the chiropractor every time you have every little ache and pain. If every time somebody slept on their couch wrong, and they said, “Oh, my neck kind of hurts. I’m going into Dr. Merrill,” we would be overrun. We wouldn’t have enough space. We wouldn’t have enough rooms to treat all these different patients.

I always recommend taking care of some of this yourself before you just jump right into rushing to the chiropractor. Certainly, we’d like to see you, but if this is something that you can fix it with a quick stretch, just do that. Let’s talk real quick about the two things that I recommend to get the best cavitation, one for your neck and one for your back. For your lower back, you’re going to lay down on your back. You’re going to bring your knees up. Then you’re going to keep your back touching the surface, and you’re going to let your legs come over all the way to one side, slowly and then all the ways to the other side, slowly. If you’re going to get cavitation, that’s where you’re going to get cavitation in your lower back. Don’t force anything. It should just be a light stretch. You keep your back on the bed or on the floor, and their legs are able to go over as far as they can to either side.

The best way to get cavitation in your neck is this stretch. Start with your palms facing out. Then you’re going to depress your shoulders and gently tip your head to the side, hold right there, and then depress that shoulder to the side. Please take a look at the video linked below to see how it’s done. You can try that trick to get good cavitation in your neck without that rotational component that is the dangerous component.

Safety is key here. With self-manipulation, it goes from “I tore a muscle” to “I tore a nerve root” to “I died because I was twisting my own neck.” There are some reports in the papers about some very well-known people ending up in that scenario. Don’t let that be you. Make sure that you’re doing this safely. I would rather see you here, even if it seemed mildly unnecessary, than to have you end up with some of these bad side effects because you tried to do it yourself. Here at Nightlight Chiropractic in Orlando, we are happy to answer any questions you might have and help you get on the path to good spinal health.

About Dr. Merrill

headshot of Dr merrill
Dr. Andrew Merrill is a passionate active clinician and owner of Nightlight Chiropractic Orlando where him and his team treat hundreds of patients each month. With a strong background in exercise science from Stetson University, clinical skills from Palmer College of Chiropractic, and continued postdoctoral training in spinal disc injuries and clinical nutrition, Dr. Merrill is very well versed in the healthcare landscape. With topics ranging from "what to do for common ailments" to "why the medical system is failing you" Dr. Merrill and this blog in particular aim to keep readers up to date on what the research shows and how you can put it into practice NOW to keep yourself healthy for a lifetime.