Well, the short answer – it’s not recommended.
Let’s start by explaining back cracking. In osteopathy and chiropractic, cracking is the colloquial term for the manipulation of joints that, due to the body’s response, can sometimes create an audible ‘popping’ sound. It’s typically used to treat lower back pain, but is also commonly used to treat neck pain. The manipulation itself is used to release pressure and tension from the joint to restore movement.
Introducing Knuckle Cracking
Before we discuss back cracking, let’s start with knuckle cracking – as they are both very similar.
A recent joint study looked at the process of a knuckle being cracked over cine MRI imaging. The study found that the manipulation created a void or air space – and it was this release that caused the cracking sound.
But is Cracking Safe?
What does this mean in real terms?
Basically, as an osteopath separates a joint, as we do in “cracking”, we create a pocket of pressure that then releases. This process has neither found to be good nor bad for our health.
When it comes to knuckle cracking – if your cracking action crushes your knuckles together, you are potentially causing wear and tear damage to the cartilage lining your joints. This is bad. Long term wear and tear may lead to osteoarthritis, which is the pathology associated with degradation of cartilage in a joint. If you must release your finger joints, the best way to do that is by gapping the joint, or pulling your finger directly outwards (no jokes please) rather than pushing from your knuckles.
What About Cracking my Back?
Well the theory is the same.
As you crack your back, a pressure is released. It’s best explained by visualizing the seal on your fridge door. As you open your fridge, pressure is released and you hear an audible pop like sound.
So is cracking your back bad? Again, in theory – no. Many manipulative therapists, such as Osteopaths use a cracking technique known as high velocity low amplitude (HVLA) manipulation. It uses a short direct thrust to a joint that is bound up to its restricted point at its end range of motion.
It is generally a safe technique that is used to release pressure at the joint, but also to send inhibitive signals to the brain to release restrictions at the joint. A qualified and skilled practitioner will be able to direct the force correctly to provide welcome therapeutic results for the patient.
The reason cracking your back or neck feels good, is because you are releasing pressure at that joint. The reason you feel the need to crack your joint in the first place is because there is usually restriction elsewhere in the spine.
So if you find that you need to crack your neck or back all the time, ensure that the joint is released safely by visiting a qualified manipulative therapist, such as an Osteopath. Back cracking and manipulation is just one of the treatment techniques Osteopaths use. While being extremely effective, if you have hesitations about back manipulation, a good Osteopath can instead perform alternative techniques to treat your condition.