When neck cracking or grinding sounds are first noticed, it is normal to wonder whether something is wrong in the cervical spine. In general, a doctor should be consulted if neck cracking, also called neck crepitus, accompanies any of the following:
- Pain or swelling. Neck crepitus with pain or swelling could indicate osteoarthritis or some other type of inflammatory process in the joints of the neck.
- Recent accident or injury. If the neck is making new cracking or grinding sounds after trauma, such as a car accident or a fall, then that could indicate a structural change that needs to be addressed by a qualified health professional.
- Frequent or constant. If the neck crepitus is constant, such as a sound that can be recreated every time or nearly every time the joint is moved, then that could signal a problem in joint function, especially when accompanied by pain.
- Recent surgery. Sometimes new neck sounds develop after surgery in the cervical spine. These sounds might show up weeks later, and while they could be normal and nothing to worry about, they should be mentioned to the surgeon just in case.
Otherwise, neck cracking and grinding sounds alone most likely do not indicate a health problem. If a person is excessively worried about frequent neck cracking sounds even though there is no pain or other troubling symptoms, it is worth seeing the doctor to rule out a serious underlying condition and regain peace of mind.
Neck Cracking Not Linked with Arthritis
Some people regularly crack their neck on purpose—either due to a nervous habit or perhaps to bring some therapeutic relief from neck tightness. As such, it is common for people to wonder whether repeatedly cracking the neck can wear down the joints and cause arthritis.
A review of the current medical literature indicates that frequent, purposeful knuckle-cracking of the fingers does not increase the risk for arthritis in those joints.1,2 Joint cracking in the neck has not been as thoroughly studied, but there is currently no evidence to suggest that purposefully cracking the neck increases the risk for arthritis.
Can Purposefully Adjusting the Neck Be Dangerous?
While quite rare, and at the time of this article inconclusive, there are reports of vertebral artery dissection in the neck resulting in a stroke after certain types of manipulation of the cervical spine. There is debate whether vertebral artery damage is equally likely to occur in people who do not receive spinal manipulation in this subset of the population.3 A review of the medical literature indicates that spinal manipulation of the neck by a qualified medical professional does not appreciably stress or stretch the vertebral artery.4-8
As a standard precaution, anyone experiencing concerning symptoms such as pain, dizziness, lightheadedness, numbness, tingling, or other troubling symptoms after neck cracking should consult a qualified health professional immediately.