That snap, crackle, and pop in your neck might not be worth the satisfaction. Here's how to find relief while avoiding injury.
Photo: Shutterstock / Khaoniewping
Cracking your neck can be so satisfying when tension-filled knots leave you feeling sore, but it can actually be a riskier move than you might think. Case in point, Natalie Kunicki, a 23-year-old paramedic for the London Ambulance Service, recently suffered a stroke after simply cracking her neck while watching movies in bed, the Daily Mail reports. (Related: This Woman Says She Suffered a Stroke from Doing Yoga)
Kunicki knew something was wrong when she got up to go to the bathroom and suddenly collapsed to the ground. While she initially believed the fall was a result of being tipsy, she soon realized she couldn't move or feel her left leg and was subsequently rushed to the hospital. Turns out, cracking her neck caused a vertebral artery to burst, which led to a blood clot in her brain and eventually the stroke. The episode left Kunicki temporarily, partially paralyzed on the left side of her body, according to the Daily Mail. Though doctors are hopeful for a full recovery, Kunicki said she's still struggling to regain mobility.
As a paramedic, Kunicki told the Daily Mail she frequently receives calls for strokes, but typically not for people under 70 years old. "I have never been [called out] to a young person having a stroke," she said. "It was just spontaneous, and there's a one in a million chance of it happening."
Kunicki's circumstances might be rare, but many people crack their neck for instant relief—or as a result of injury, or a chronic, underlying condition—without realizing it can actually cause long-term damage, says Marianne Ryan, an NYC-based physical therapist and author of the book Baby Bod. (Related: Is It Actually Bad to Crack Your Knuckles and Joints?)
Here's why cracking your neck can be dangerous.
Your neck is the start of two things in your body: your cervical spine—which is made up of seven vertebral segments, muscle tissue, and nerves—and your spinal cord, which is made up of nerves connecting to the brain, says Kellen Scantlebury, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., CEO of Fit Club NY. As a whole, your neck is an extremely sensitive structure that controls your mobility, the ability to scan your environment, and sensations in the body, he explains. Typically, when you crack your neck, what you're actually doing is realigning your cervical spine. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that every time you crack your neck that it's because the cervical spine is out of place. Note: In an optimal, neutral position, the cervical spine has an anterior curve to it, while each individual vertebra is stacked one on top of the other via a flattened surface called the facet joint, explains Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and yoga teacher.
What's more, the cracking noise or "pop" you hear when you stretch and put pressure on these joints isn't necessarily problematic. "When you twist or yank on your neck, the surfaces can slide against each other and either realign, or make noise, or both," says Heimann. "We are 60 percent water, and other fluid structures that get less fluid and drier make noise," she explains. Putting pressure on the area adds to that noise. (Related: My Neck Injury Was the Self-Care Wake-Up Call I Didn't Know I Needed)
It's when the spinal nerves and their pathways get impeded that cracking your neck can get risky. "Think of the spinal nerves coming off of the spinal cord like off-ramps coming off of a major highway," says Chad Woodward, P.T., Ph.D., C.S.C.S., principal director at SYMBIO Physical Therapy and Wellness. "The highway is the spinal cord, the central path for all communication to the brain. The spinal nerves exit the vertebrae like off-ramps—acting as smaller pathways for specific jobs." The problems can arise when that opening or exit ramp for the spinal nerve gets "compressed," or when "the off-ramp gets backed up with traffic," explains Woodward. "If someone cracks their neck too aggressively, it can cause compression of that space and irritate or even damage these nerves."
As a result, serious side effects can include tearing a wall of critical blood vessels in your neck, blood clot, stroke, and paralysis, adds Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health.
Is there a "right" way to crack your neck?
While experts strongly suggest not cracking your neck at all when tension builds, if you're able to do so with "an active range of motion (bending your head to the side without a lot of extra force and a pop happens)," you should be fine, says Dr. Woodward. "If, to pop your neck, you need to supply a significant amount of external force, this starts getting riskier," he explains.
Rest assured, you can still find relief while avoiding high-risk injuries. The next time you experience a kink in your neck, try soothing the stiffness in your muscles by exercising or massaging them out, suggests Dr. Woodward. (Try these simple yoga poses that offer neck pain relief.)
Overall, the best thing you can do is "address the reason these muscles are so tight" in the first place, he says. Whether it's a result of stress at the office, a past injury, anxiety, or even a weird sleeping position, treat the discomfort accordingly, he explains. "This can be done with exercises to balance the workload of the neck muscles, postural changes, and a good PT."