Having your back or neck “cracked” is a common routine that many French people indulge in. When getting up, after sport and even at work, the gesture has sometimes become so habitual that we are no longer aware of doing it. And as it provides a pleasant feeling at the time, we tend to think that this gesture is beneficial, or at the very least perfectly innocuous. But is this form of “self-manipulation” really safe? In some cases, the pain that you think you are relieving may indeed stem from an underlying problem. Update with Dr. Steffen Queinnec, orthopedic surgeon and traumatologist at the Parisian Spine Institute (IDR).

Cracking is a physiological phenomenon that is provoked to relieve tension but which can also occur involuntarily, following stretching for example. The sensation that follows is pleasant “simply because the muscles and ligaments around the area that has just been mobilized suddenly relax,” explains Dr. Queinnec. The downside is that it can be addictive, causing followers to reoffend.

First of all, you should know that certain joints in your body, such as those in the back, neck and hands, contain gas. These joints form a capsule lined with a membrane and filled with a fluid called “synovial fluid” or “synovia”. This liquid ensures the lubrication of the articular cartilage and helps protect the bones by avoiding friction during movement. It is either in dissolved form or in gaseous form depending on the variations in pressure exerted on it.

In the case of cracking, it is a phenomenon of gaseous decompression, called “cavitation”, which occurs at the level of the joints. “By stretching the joint, the pressure of the synovial fluid decreases until it reaches a critical threshold. At this time, small gas bubbles form, the joint capsule expands. It is therefore stressed. It is then that the neurological receptors at the level of the articular membrane send a signal to the brain which says “I am in tension, it is painful, we must act”, describes Dr. Steffen Queinnec. To protect itself from pain, the brain will therefore contract the joint, which causes the small gas bubbles to suddenly give way. By “exploding”, these small bubbles generate a noise: it is the famous cracking sound that you hear! The result is a rebalancing of joint pressure and therefore the disappearance of pain.

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It is certain that we feel better after a good back crunch but this relief is only momentary. “We can do it from time to time. On the other hand, performing exercises with the specific aim of cracking your back or neck is not recommended because certain gestures are bad,” warns the surgeon. Indeed, the cracking causes significant stress on the cartilage. Whether it is the back, the neck or the fingers, this can in the long term create damage to the cartilage or even the ligaments around the joint. The most frequent complication is premature wear of the joints.

In the particular case of the neck, there is a risk of vascular accident because at the level of the cervical vertebrae are the cerebral arteries. “However, these arteries are very sensitive to the rotations of the head: too sudden a cracking of the neck can cause what is called a dissection. Even if this complication is exceptional, we must remain cautious,” warns Dr. Queinnec. For this reason, cervical manipulation should strictly be performed by a specialist after cervical imaging. And if back or neck pain returns chronically, it’s always best to see a doctor.

It can be a herniated disc, articular osteoarthritis (worn joints), strong muscle tension or poor posture. Being constantly seated or semi-lying in front of your screen favors positional pathologies, that is to say that pain appears permanently because you have got into the habit of staying in bad postures for a long time. “With the democratization of teleworking but also the greater sedentary lifestyle of young people, more and more patients are complaining of back pain precisely because they spend a lot of time in front of a screen while being poorly positioned”, notes Dr. Queinnec.

In the same vein, specialists are concerned about the intensive use of mobile devices: the link is not obvious but constantly looking at your phone has many consequences on our backs. We talk about the “texter syndrome” also called “text-neck”. “Staying too long with your head tilted, especially when we stare at our phones or tablets, leads to overuse of the head. This tension on the neck causes an extension of the spine and can cause pain. “explains the doctor.

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Stopping having your back cracked is not easy, especially if you have been in the habit of doing it for several years. The best solution is still to consult, especially if your pain radiates to other parts of the body such as the arms. According to Dr. Queinnec, “this can be the sign of a real pathology that will have to be treated. For example, if it is a muscular pathology, we can offer rehabilitation with a physiotherapist so that the patient has the same feeling of relaxation but with exercises prescribed by a specialist”.

If it’s due to poor posture, your doctor will be able to find out through targeted questions about your work habits, the amount of time you devote to physical activity and watching screens. In this case, you will be advised to try to change your habits, for example by encouraging you to be seated when you work at home, by investing in a more comfortable office chair or by learning to stretch.