Cracking Sounds from Your Neck? A PT Explains What's Going On
Learn the truth behind whether cracking and popping sounds coming from your neck are a bad sign, and what you can do to keep your neck strong and healthy.
If you've ever turned your head and heard a snap, crackle, and pop sound coming from your neck, you've experienced neck crepitus. Many people find these sounds unsettling and have some concerns. Whether you’re worried about neck arthritis or anything else, know this: Crepitus in and of itself is nothing to worry about. There’s no evidence to suggest that occasional or regular cracking sounds from your neck are signs of an issue, nor will it cause neck issues.
Neck crepitus is common and typically harmless, and there are steps you can take to keep your neck strong and healthy. Read on to learn what neck crepitus is, what causes it, and how to keep your neck strong and resilient to pain with tips from physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Lori Walter, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Is That Cracking and Popping Sound?
It’s common to assume that crepitus indicates a serious issue with your neck, but more often than not it can be explained by any of the following (or a combination of them):
Air escaping from the joint surface. This is probably the most common reason, says Lori Walter, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Your neck is made up of seven bones. Joints form where two bones meet and air is oftentimes held within those joints. Stretching, craning, twisting, or even just moving your neck (as we all do hundreds of times each day) can cause air to escape the joint capsule and create a popping sound. This can happen to any joint in the body, whether you crack your knuckles intentionally or just experience this spontaneously with movement sometimes.
Moving tendons and ligaments. Every joint has ligaments and tendons surrounding it, and sometimes this connective tissue gets “caught” on bones during movement and creates a snapping sound. Think of it as if you were to pull a rubber band tight and flick it with your finger. The sound just reflects movement, but it’s nothing dangerous.
Certain conditions, such as arthritis. Our bodies change with age. Some people develop gray hair on their head or wrinkles on their skin. Others experience more internal changes, such as with soft tissues or cartilage. Many of these changes are very normal, and they don’t always cause noticeable symptoms. But for some people, loss of cartilage causes the surfaces of bones to become less smooth, which can cause a grinding sound with certain movements.
So, Should I Be Worried?
“It’s important for people to know that crepitus itself is nothing to worry about,” says Dr. Walter. Some people might experience neck crepitus a few times a month, whereas others might experience it every day with neck movement.
“Neck cracking can definitely be disconcerting for a lot of people, especially when they don’t know why it’s happening. The issue at the neck level is that there’s a lot of mobility, especially when you compare it to a hinge joint like the knee,” notes Dr. Walter. “There are seven vertebrae (bones) in there, which essentially means there’s more opportunity for cracking.” But hearing cracking, popping, or grinding sounds in and of itself does not mean there’s a problem, and on its own is nothing to be concerned about medically, she stresses.
If, however, crepitus is accompanied by numbness, lightheadedness, significant pain, or a significant decrease in mobility, it can be helpful to have a medical opinion. “I also like people to know that if you’re highly concerned about your crepitus, and it’s causing you a lot of stress, it’s okay to get checked out for the sake of feeling more confident in your ability to move,” says Dr. Walter. A physical therapist can show you stretches you can do to improve joint mobility and possibly improve your crepitus. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
What Can I Do if It Bothers Me?
Most people with crepitus don’t experience any pain or discomfort, but they associate the noises with something bad or dangerous. As a result, they may modify their behaviors, assuming cracking and grinding sounds means something is wrong with their neck and that too much movement or activity will make their symptoms worse. If you do have any pain or discomfort with crepitus or are simply irritated by it, there are still things that you can do to work on keeping your neck strong and healthy (although they might not help with or prevent crepitus directly):
Exercise therapy. Because the neck is so mobile, it’s important to have stability in and around the area so it has proper support. Exercises that strengthen the deep neck muscles, as well as the shoulders, can give your neck joints the support they need. “A lot of people are surprised by this, but working on your shoulder strength can help your neck because many muscles cross both your shoulder and neck joints,” says Dr. Walter.
Alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage. “The muscles around the neck can become tense or stiff, which can contribute to pain and crepitus,” says Dr. Walter. Treatments like acupuncture or massage may help loosen those muscles and create more space at the joints, which may help with symptoms.
Consider your sleep position. How you sleep can play a role in how your neck feels and functions the next day. So if you find your sleep position doesn’t offer your neck the right amount of support, it might factor into neck pain or stiffness. Research shows that sleeping on your back or side might be worth trying if you are experiencing neck pain and stiffness at the moment. (Just remember, the best sleeping position for you is the one that’s most comfortable.) You can also try a new pillow that offers the right amount of support for you.
Change up your workstation. Just like your sleeping position, sitting or working in a certain position all day will not cause crepitus. But if you are experiencing neck pain and stiffness, staying in the same position for long periods of time can contribute to symptoms (commonly referred to as “tech neck”). Try to change positions throughout the day, whether that’s propping your laptop on a file cabinet and standing for a bit, getting up to stretch or walk, or switching your sitting position (e.g., changing from crossing your legs to uncrossing them).
Take deep breaths. For most people, neck pain, stiffness, and crepitus are temporary. Maybe you slept in an odd position or had a particularly stressful week at work, which contributed to muscle tension and now your neck is making weird noises, says Dr. Walter. This is where stress can be an issue. “It makes our muscles tight. Even muscle tension in your jaw can contribute to tension through the whole head and neck,” she adds. Of course, managing your stress is much easier said than done. But many simple and quick techniques such as deep or diaphragmatic breathing can effectively reduce tension in your neck, according to a 2022 review published in the journal Diagnostics.
Easy Neck Exercises to Improve Pain, Stiffness, and Crepitus
Although cracking and popping sounds in your neck aren’t necessarily bad, neck stretching and strengthening exercises can help with your neck symptoms. They are also very important in building strength and flexibility in the neck to reduce and prevent pain. The given exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great way to keep your neck healthy. Start by doing these exercises once per day, and gradually increase the frequency if you find them helpful.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
PT Tip: Keep It Moving
Whether you’re sleeping, sitting in front of a computer, standing, or watching TV, holding your neck in the same position for a long time can cause your neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles to tense up and contribute to some pain, discomfort, and, in some cases, crepitus. It’s worthwhile to find little ways to move and change positions during the day, says Dr. Walter. “I encourage people to take movement breaks as frequently as they can throughout the day,” she adds. If you have a desk job, it helps to set up a workstation that’s conducive to changing positions. For example, consider a sit-to-stand desk if possible. “More movement through the day can help minimize your symptoms,” says Dr. Walter.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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