I'll admit it: I'm a back-cracker. I'll twist around in my seat, grab an arm rest, and relish the feeling of my spine opening and the satisfying "pops" that come from it. But I've weathered enough horrified stares from my coworkers to start wondering whether this delicious-feeling stretch is actually doing bad things for my back. We decided to get to the bottom of it once and for all. Is cracking your back is actually harmful? And what's causing it to happen in the first place?
Why Does Your Back "Crack"?
Short answer: no one's 100 percent sure what makes your back crack. Nirav Pandya, MD, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at UC San Francisco, said that it most likely has to do with the lubricating fluid in your joints, which contains gas bubbles. The popping sound and sensation may be caused by the gas being released, which is essentially the same thing that happens when you pop your knuckles, Dr. Pandya said. "The release of pressure around those joints can sometimes be what makes people feel good," he told POPSUGAR.
Is Cracking Your Back Bad For You?
Good news: unless it's causing pain, cracking your back isn't bad for you. "Cracking your back is far from harmful. Bones are very powerful and very strong," said Supreet Shah, DC, MS, CCSP, a chiropractor at TruSpine in San Francisco. "As long as you're doing it moderation and it's not causing discomfort, then most likely it's going to be OK for you to do," Dr. Pandya added.
If it is causing any pain in your back, definitely stop and see a doctor. Dr. Pandya said the pain may stem from pulling the muscles along your spine, or from the discs between vertebrae losing elasticity or strength and causing a grinding sensation. "I think in general, a good rule with the spine is that if it's hurting, then don't do that maneuver," he told POPSUGAR. He added that there's no data to suggest a link between painless back-cracking and conditions like arthritis later in life.
As for what positions are safest for cracking your spine, it goes back to whatever feels good for you. "Unforced cracking positions are very safe," Dr. Shah told POPSUGAR. Unforced cracks can occur with yoga poses, for example, or by stretching your neck from side to side. Forced cracking, on the other hand, "is when you purposefully force your back or neck to crack by twisting or pulling, using your hands," Dr. Shah said, or when you have a friend walk on your back or bear-hug you. Forced cracking can lead to discomfort and pain. If you experience any, be sure to avoid those forced positions.
Dr. Pandya said the key to having other people to manipulate or crack your back is simply to communicate. Tell them when you're experiencing pain, discomfort, or tightness in a position and stop right away if that's the case.
So those rumors that one wrong twist might jeopardize your spine? "That's just really not true," he told POPSUGAR. "It takes tremendous amounts of force to get hurt by a chiropractor or even to hurt yourself while twisting." If it hurts, stop and see a doctor; if it feels good to do it in moderation, crack away.