It’s a common occurrence: You twist or tilt your head to the side and your neck cracks.
You may be wondering why your neck does that and—more importantly—is it something to be concerned about?
Rest assured that, in most cases, neck-cracking is nothing to worry about. However, there are a few exceptions when popping or grinding in the neck may be a sign of a larger problem, so it’s worth learning about the signs of unhealthy neck cracking.
Crepitus: harmless joint cracking
Any time a joint in the body creates a cracking, popping, or grinding sound or sensation, this is known as crepitus. Experts believe that crepitus is caused by gas bubbles in the synovial fluid of the joint either bursting or being formed.
Crepitus is considered harmless, and studies have not shown any evidence that it can cause joint damage or raise risk for arthritis.
A surefire sign that a neck crack is the result of crepitus is to repeat the movement that caused it and see if it occurs again. If not, the crack was probably crepitus—it takes about 20 minutes for the gas bubbles to reform.
When neck cracking should be a concern
There are a few instances in which neck cracking should be a cause for concern.
In addition to gas bubbles, popping or grinding in the neck can also be caused by dysfunction or damage in a cervical joint. This damage may be caused by an acute injury or by degeneration over years of wear and tear (osteoarthritis).
Fortunately, there are signs to help indicate when neck cracking is more than benign crepitus:
- Cracking that repeats every time you move a certain way, or nearly every time
- Cracking that’s accompanied by pain or swelling
- Cracking that starts following an accident or surgery that affects the cervical spine
If you experience any of these types of neck cracking, make an appointment with your doctor so your symptoms can be properly diagnosed.
It’s good to err on the side of caution when you’re concerned. But keep in mind that most cases of neck cracking, when not accompanied by other symptoms, are harmless.