When you purposely bend or twist your neck—either out of nervous habit or for tension relief—you likely notice a cracking, popping, or snapping sound.
You may be wondering, can cracking my neck cause arthritis?
You’re probably safe
In most cases, neck cracking is completely harmless. The sound you hear is most likely due to tiny gas bubbles that form and pop in the fluid between your synovial joints. This process, as far as we know, causes no damage to your neck.
While cracking the neck has not been extensively studied, we know from medical literature on cracking fingers that this habit does not increase the risk for arthritis. There is currently no evidence that suggests neck cracking leads to arthritis.
What actually causes neck arthritis
Neck arthritis, or cervical osteoarthritis, isn’t caused by cracking your neck, but it is relatively common and can develop naturally as you age.
The condition is caused by the gradual wearing down of the protective cartilage that lines the joints in your neck. As the cartilage wears away over time, bone-on-bone grinding occurs, which may cause pain and swelling in the joints.
Factors like genetics, injury, and working a physically demanding job could all play a small part in developing neck arthritis. Cracking your neck won’t speed up the process.
Crack with caution
Cracking your neck isn’t an arthritis hazard, but if doing this movement causes pain or swelling, or the sound can be recreated every time you move your neck, a visit to your doctor is recommended.
You should also visit your doctor if your neck began cracking after a car accident, fall, or any type of traumatic injury. The cracking sound you hear may be signaling a structural change that occurred in your neck as a result of the trauma, which needs to be addressed.
While the likely source of the occasional neck-cracking sound—the forming/collapsing of air bubbles in synovial fluid—is not causing harm, you may still want to avoid the repetitive neck bending or twisting you do to cause it. Muscle strains or sprains can occur if you forcefully overstretch your neck, extending it beyond its normal range of motion.
You can always visit your doctor or chiropractor and ask about your neck cracking if you’re unsure about whether or not it’s a problem. Their professional opinion may bring you peace of mind.