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Revealed: What actually happens when you get your back cracked (and why it feels SO good)

Back Pain

Is it OK to get your back cracked? Dr. Alex Earl explains all you need to know.

There is something satisfying about hearing the sound of the spine "popping". As a chiropractic physician, I was taught how specifically we can get with our treatments to best help serve the needs of our patients. But without fail, every month at our Carol Stream clinic, new patients ask us why it feels SO good to get your back "cracked"?  In fact, there are social media accounts specifically showing real life spinal adjustments creating an audible "crack" followed shortly thereafter with a relaxing "ahh" feeling by the patient.

In our opinion, it is an important question which needs to be properly answered. 

What actually happens to create the audible noise starts within the spinal joints. In a physiological process known as "tribonucleation", which is when two opposing surfaces resist separation, specifically in this case the spinal joints but can apply to any  synovial joint in the body. This resistance of separation eventually reach a critical point whereby a force causes the joint surfaces to quickly and briefly separate.

When this separation takes place, the lubricant within the joint, called synovial fluid, immediately has an increase in space as well as the new addition of a tiny gas bubble. It is the creation of this small gas pocket within the joint that is responsible for the audible popping sound. Back in 2015, researchers were tasked with capturing this physiological phenomenon, which they successfully did with the help of an MRI scan. Check out the 6 second video of a finger below.   

So there is the physiological explanation as to the mechanism behind the audible noise, but what actually happens that makes getting your back "cracked" feel so good. 

A few weeks ago, when setting up to adjust a patient on his side to adjust his low back, my shoulder "popped" while pulling him into the final position BEFORE adjusting the patient. What happened next was interesting... 

The patient let out an audible, "Ahhh" with a lengthy and very relaxing exhale. 

But it was my shoulder that cavitated (or "popped"). 

Why would he experience a feeling when it wasn't his joint which "popped"?  

There is no doubt that the mind plays a part, and if one is expecting an audible pop then one will be more aware and alert when the sound of one is heard, regardless of where it came from.

If this audible release creates a wonderful pain-modifying effect, then should we all just be popped our neck and back all day? Probably not, as we are not advocates for reliance on one treatment as an end-all-be-all guide to eliminating pain. 

Usually, back cracking on your own is harmless. There is no evidence this "popping" causes arthritis. Expert doctors and therapists all agree: an ideal treatment approach is one that encompasses more active than passive. If your doctor or therapist is heavily reliant on massage, electric stimulation, heat/ice, kinesiotaping, and posture correction, that is a red flag. 

At our Carol Stream clinic, we utilize spinal adjustments regularly - when it is clinically indicated and within the guidelines for expert care. Every patient comes into our office looking to identify WHY they have back or neck pain, and our methods include stretching, flexibility, mobility, strengthening, and overall body awareness through individualized treatment and exercise routines. 

In our opinion, treatment plans which rely on spinal adjustments, massages, vibration beds, and lasers are NOT addressing the underlying issue but rather masking the symptoms and provide short-term symptom modification. 

If you, or someone you know has been suffering with back pain, which prevents them from doing the activities they love then please forward this article over to them. Why? Because we believe that everyone in pain should have a chance at learning how to get back to the most fulfilling parts of their lives'. We'll help you get there.

Alex Earl

Alex Earl

Alex Earl, DC - Chiropractic Physician - Dr. Earl helps people of all ages remain active, strong and able to participate in the activities they love. Aside from Active Health & Restoration, Alex is a clinical instructor for Midwest Rehabilitation Institute, along with a few other professional educational organizations across the country. He is a Diplomate in Clinical Rehabilitation through the American Chiropractic Board of Rehabilitation (ACRB). Dr. Earl earned his Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) degree from National University of Health Sciences in 2015. He is currently a resident in West Chicago, IL with his beautiful wife, and four (perfect) children. In his spare time, Alex coaches high school soccer.
Alex Earl

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