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Is Cracking Your Knuckles Safe?

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By: Dr. Stephen O’Neil

Dear Dr. Steve: Is cracking your back by yourself safe? What about cracking your knuckles, does this cause arthritis or make your knuckles bigger? A.B. Tecumseh

Dr. Steve: The noise you are referring to when ‘cracking' your back, is caused by carbon dioxide gas dispersing within the joint. Gapping any joint apart causes a pressure change in the joint and the normal gas pocket to disperse causing a popping noise. The key to the chiropractic adjustment is putting proper motion into restricted joints of the spine. This is performed to relieve pressure on spinal nerves to promote proper function and overall health. Restricted joints are adjusted and a cavetation or audible pop is often heard. This popping is not necessary for an adjustment to occur, it is merely a byproduct. The most important thing to remember about cracking your back is that a chiropractor is an educated physician, highly trained to assess and adjust the spine properly. The adjustments are specific and move the joints in a specific direction not beyond their normal end range. Manipulating your own joints is not a good practice for these same reasons. It is not specific, you are not trained to do this and the proper direction often cannot be achieved. In doing so, joints are jammed together instead of gapping apart. This may cause the same popping noise and some relief may be experienced, however more damage to the cartilage in the joints is the likely result. This will not directly cause osteoarthritis but over a period of time may contribute to cartilage degeneration and deformation.

Moving in certain directions to have your back ‘crack' is likely not harmful but cannot replace an adjustment by a trained chiropractor. Pushing, pulling or having someone squeeze or walk on our spine as well as cracking your knuckles is just a poor practice and is causing more harm than good. In the long term, jamming these joints together will only cause more and more problems to the cartilage in these joints.