Spine Cracks With Movement

Our backs crack for myriad reasons. But what is making this sound? And when should it concern me?

Lumbar

Read on to learn about what makes the cracking sound when you twist or bend your spine, when the sound is normal, and when it may indicate a developing problem in the joints, bones, and/or muscles of your spine.

Why does my back sound like it’s cracking and popping? In the 1970’s, doctors thought that this was from bubbles popping in your joints. Today, some think it might be from oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide between the joints being released, similar to when you open a can of soda. Some think it’s caused by the negative pressure created when two joint surfaces separate and synovial. Muscles are not only for movement, but they are also important for providing protection and stability to the bones and joints that lay underneath them. Weak neck muscles increase the amount of instability in the cervical spine, which might trigger the desire to crack the spinal joints. Most compression fractures- tiny cracks in the bones of your spine, or vertebra - in women at this age happen because of osteoporosis, a condition defined by bones that are weak and brittle.

Find out the 3 common causes of joint crepitus. Watch:Video: Why Do My Joints Crack?

The cracking, popping, or grating that you experience under your skin is called crepitus and usually originates from your joints, but may also develop within your bursae, tendons, or other soft tissues.

Depending on the cause, spinal crepitus can be:

  • Crepitus by cavitation:1,2 An audible pop or crack, which may occur during normal movement or when the spine is moved near its end range of motion. Cavitation can occur naturally with exercise or motion and can be induced by a health professional, such as a chiropractor, or osteopathic physician. Cavitation is usually normal and painless and is typically not a cause for concern.
  • Arthritic crepitus:3 A snap, click, or coarse grating sensation when you move your spine (or other joints), which is typically caused due to wear and tear within the joints (osteoarthritis).

    See Osteoarthritis of the Spine

Crepitus may indicate an injury to a bone or soft tissue.3,4 Sometimes, you may feel a vibration instead of an actual sound.3

The type of sound depends on its origin

Motion-related sounds from your spine are usually produced when you bend forward or rotate the spine.3 The sound can originate from one or more of the following structures:

  • Facet joint capsule. Cavitation mostly occurs within your facet joint (joint between your vertebrae) capsule and causes a crack or pop. This sound is produced when the air pressure within the joint changes suddenly—causing bubbles within the joint fluid to form and/or collapse.2,3 This sound is similar to the one produced when you crack your knuckles and is not a sign of joint injury or arthritis.
  • Facet joint. When the facet joint surfaces become rough and do not glide smoothly, grating crepitus may be felt. This sound may indicate damaged cartilage in these surfaces resulting from arthritis. More advanced facet arthritis may cause bone-on-bone grinding.4

    Watch Facet Joints Video

  • Connective tissue. Spasm in the vertebral muscles, roughening of tendons, or adhesions in connective tissues may produce a snapping or grating crepitus during movement.3,4 Connective tissues can also produce normal sounds when they stretch slightly and snap back into place (such as during shoulder movements).
  • Disc. Movement of a disc fragment within the spinal facet joint may produce a click sound.4

Watch Spine Anatomy Overview Video

Crepitus may also occur when the movement in your facets is less (producing laxity)3,4 or more (producing instability).2 Crepitus typically increases with age.3

Spine Cracks With Movement

See The Truth About Back Cracking and Grinding

When spine cracking may indicate a problem

If your spine makes cracking sounds, here are a few pointers to help you figure out if the sound is normal or a cause for concern.

Normal joint sounds
Normal sounds are usually felt as an audible crack or pop when you move. Typical characteristics of normal spinal joint sounds are:

Spine Crack 2d

  • They are painless and can be repeated again
  • A repeat is possible only after a gap of a few minutes; the exact time period differs for every individual

A repeat sound can be produced if you are stationary or even if you are constantly moving your back.

Normal joint crepitus sounds produce certain anatomical changes within the joint, such as:

  • Production of a gap between the joint surfaces1,2
  • Breaking up of connective tissue adhesions between the joint surfaces1,2
  • Stimulation of nerves and muscles around the joint2
  • Improvement of the range of motion of the joint2

This type of sound is usually more common in men.1

Abnormal joint sounds

Abnormal joint sounds typically have the following characteristics:

  • They are usually associated with pain, swelling, collection of fluid, and/or a history of injury
  • These sounds can result from degeneration, instability, soft tissue damage, fracture, and/or as a result of past surgical procedures
  • The sounds may repeat often, without a refractory period

Lumbar Spine Movement

If you are in doubt or if your back-cracking sound is associated with pain, it is advised to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Intermittent and painless cracking is usually normal and not a cause for concern.

Spine cracks with movement causes

Learn more:

  • Referrence
    • 1.Cramer GD, Ross K, Raju PK, et al. Quantification of cavitation and gapping of lumbar zygapophyseal joints during spinal manipulative therapy. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2012;35(8):614–621. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2012.06.007
    • 2.Cramer GD, Ross K, Pocius J, et al. Evaluating the relationship among cavitation, zygapophyseal joint gapping, and spinal manipulation: an exploratory case series. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2011;34(1):2–14. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2010.11.008
    • 3.Cramer GD, Budavich M, Bora P, Ross K. A Feasibility Study to Assess Vibration and Sound From Zygapophyseal Joints During Motion Before and After Spinal Manipulation. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2017;40(3):187–200. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2017.01.003
    • 4.Ombregt L. Clinical diagnosis of soft tissue lesions. In: A System of Orthopaedic Medicine. Elsevier; 2013:53-82.e2. doi:10.1016/b978-0-7020-3145-8.00004-1

Categories

Cracks

Tags

Crepitus or crepitation is the noise that may be heard during joint movements, such as a cracking, popping, snapping, or grinding. These sounds and sensations can occur in the neck as well. Most people at some point have experienced neck crepitus. One example is feeling a cracking sensation in the neck when turning the head to back up a car.

Neck crepitus is usually painless and typically does not represent anything serious. However, if crepitus occurs with other troubling symptoms such as pain or following trauma, it could indicate a more serious underlying medical condition is present.

advertisement

Neck Anatomy Involved in Cracking Sounds

The facet joints in the neck are where the back of adjacent vertebrae join together. There is a smooth surface on the end of each bone called cartilage. Inside the facet joint is synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints. At the front of the adjacent vertebrae is another connection called the intervertebral disc space. Neck crepitus is thought to occur when structures in the spine rub together and make sounds.

Watch Cervical Vertebrae Anatomy Animation

Some likely causes of neck crepitus include:

  • Articular pressure changes. Tiny gas bubbles can form and eventually collapse within synovial joints, be released and then create the popping sounds, such as in the neck’s facet joints. These are the sounds that are heard when people crack their finger knuckles, which is not harmful. These joint-cracking sounds can happen during natural movement or during manipulations of the spine in physical therapy or by a chiropractor. The medical literature had been conflicted in recent years as to whether these sounds are created by the gas bubbles being created or collapsed. Most in the medical community believe that the sounds are from the bubbles collapsing, but it has yet to be proven conclusively.1-3
  • Ligament or tendon moving around bone. Ligaments and tendons both attach to bones. In some cases, it may be possible for a moving ligament or tendon to make a snapping sound as it moves around a bone and/or over each other. This can occur because our muscles and tissues are too tight or because they become less elastic as we age.

    See Neck Muscles and Other Soft Tissues

  • Bone-on-bone grinding. As facet joints degenerate due to osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage wears down and adjacent vertebral bones can start rubbing against each other, which may cause a grinding noise or sensation. This grinding can also occur due to disc degeneration resulting in less cushioning between the vertebrae.

See Neck Pain Causes

Neck crepitus is thought to occur when structures in the spine rub together and make sounds. One suggested cause of neck crepitus is the formation and collapse of tiny gas bubbles, caused by pressure changes within the joint.

Neck crepitus could be caused by any of these factors, or in some cases it could be a combination of these or other factors. It should also be noted that crepitus can occur in any moveable joint in the body (with common examples including the knees and shoulders).

Read What Is Crepitus? on Arthritis-health.com

How Neck Crepitus Feels

While neck crepitus is commonly painless, it can also be accompanied by various degrees of neck stiffness or neck pain, ranging from dull aches to sharp pains.

See Types of Neck Pain

People who have some degree of pain with neck crepitus may be at a higher risk for having negative thoughts and stress associated with their neck’s cracking and grinding sounds. These negative thoughts might cause people to unnecessarily alter behaviors or worry that the neck has serious structural damage even when it does not. A study that looked at people with painful knee crepitus found that the participants had more worries that their knee-cracking sounds indicated premature aging, and they were also more likely to try to modify movements to avoid making the sounds.4 Similar results might hold true for people with neck pain and crepitus.

The Course of Neck Crepitus

Neck crepitus can occur at any age, but it is more likely to occur as a person gets older. The frequency of neck cracking and grinding sounds can vary greatly. Some people might experience neck crepitus a few times a month, whereas others might experience it every day or even throughout the day with most neck movements.

Neck crepitus may go through some periods where it occurs more often than others. For example, neck cracking and grinding might occur frequently for a few days and then go away. In cases where neck crepitus is the result of bone-on-bone grinding due to facet joint osteoarthritis, the neck cracking and grinding sounds are more likely to occur frequently with movements and not go away.

Spine Cracking With Movement

Spine cracking with movement

See Cervical Facet Osteoarthritis Video

While increased neck cracking and grinding sounds can occur with arthritis, there is currently no scientific evidence to suggest that frequent neck cracking can lead to arthritis. As we age, the sounds tend to move from louder and more pronounced cracks to more grinding or crunching sensations.

When Neck Crepitus Is Serious

If neck cracking or grinding is accompanied by pain, stiffness, or other concerning symptoms, it may indicate an underlying medical condition that needs to be checked by a qualified health professional.

Spine Cracks With Movement Definition

References

  • 1.Unsworth A, Dowson D, Wright V. ‘Cracking joints’ A bioengineering study of cavitation in the metacarpophalangeal joint. Ann Rheum Dis. 1971; 30: 348-358.
  • 2.Kawchuk GN, Fryer J, Jaremko JL, Zeng H, Rowe L, Thompson R. Real-time visualization of joint cavitation. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(4):e0119470
  • 3.Chandran suja V, Barakat AI. A Mathematical Model for the Sounds Produced by Knuckle Cracking. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):4600
  • 4.Robertson CJ, Hurley M, Jones F. People's beliefs about the meaning of crepitus in patellofemoral pain and the impact of these beliefs on their behaviour: A qualitative study. Musculoskelet Sci Pract. 2017;28:59-64.

Spine Cracks With Movement Muscles

Next Page: Causes of Neck Cracking and Grinding Sounds