Jan 122014
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8512557588_f5a4be7b43_oEach year, nearly 90 million Americans are struck with some level of back or neck pain.  Next to the common cold, more people visit doctors for back pain than any other symptomatic condition.  Neck pain alone affects nearly 45% of today’s workers, and is a regular malady for 12% of adults in the U.S.

Though I work largely in the insurance reporting industry, I’m proud to say I’ve also practiced chiropractic over the last twenty years.  During that time, I’ve examined and treated thousands of patients with a variety of health histories and conditions. Spine-related pain, in fact, has many different causes such as muscular, disc, nerve, pathological and congenital.  They each have their own distinct presentation.

Years of selectively sorting such patient findings has delivered a common denominator, which has been greatly overlooked in health provider offices.  I have documented it in nearly one-third of all patient cases. It’s spinal self-manipulation, that is, ‘cracking’ one’s own neck and back regularly.

Have you run into people who do this?  Do you do this?

Extrapolating my findings against the nation’s population, I surmise there are probably millions of teens and adults who regularly pop and twist their necks and backs.  Sometimes it’s done several times a day!  This addictive syndrome, adopted typically in younger years, helps to relieve stress, pain, nervousness, or anxiety. 

You’ve probably seen such individuals putting their hands on their chin and head, slowly twisting and then….snap!   Others roll their neck quickly or overstretch their lower spine to the point at which there is an audible cracking.  I’ve even watched students arching their backs over chairs, in order to obtain temporary stiffness relief.  

Anatomy tells us that our spines are made up of many spinal bones, or vertebra.  The joints of the spine do not have the same amount of motion as do the larger joints, like the shoulders, hips, and knees.  Because the bones of the spine interlock and work jointly, the motion of bending forward or sideways is shared throughout the spinal joints, each moving a little bit and adding to the others. So what’s the big deal here?

Normally, when you turn your neck or twist around, your spinal joints move in what is known as active range of motion.  But when a person forces their spine to go past that range, this commonly leads to overstretching ligaments, which causes the spinal column to become less stable in places.  As a result of the ligaments losing their healthy tension, nearby muscles  compensate to recapture spinal stability, thereby getting tighter and stiffer.  

The increased muscle tension makes the muscle and area around the spine feel tighter. As a result, the individual feels chronic and constant stress or stiffness – so they snap their neck or back over and over again.  It’s a habit that feeds into itself and may be a common contributor to early osteoarthritis in the spine.  

Simply stated, the problem with losing proper tension in the ligaments is that the spine can become hypermobile, or move too much.  According to Dr. Mark Wheaton, a board-certified pain management expert, in his paper, The Ligament Injury Connection to Osteoarthritis, “Disrupting ligaments increases the risk of cartilage injury and arthritis because the joint [ie. Neck/back] is no longer stabilized by the ligament structures”.  Injuries can cause such ligament disruption, but so can the frequent self-manipulation of one’s neck and lower back segments.  

Unlike chiropractic adjustments, in which the patient has his or her joints moved professionally, thereby gaining stability of the joints, the chronic self-manipulator’s habit grows more and more – and the stability lessens and lessens.  It often culminates to a point where the individual can no longer pop their joints because they have so badly overstretched the ligaments and tissues.  Hence, more constant and chronic aches.

This is not a habit easily resolved, because it requires the individual to go through a period of withdrawal, where some nagging pain and stiffness will most likely increase. Self-manipulation is highly addictive, and many people do it without thinking about it.  Proper chiropractic adjustments may offer help, but it is even more important to start strengthening the neck with exercises.  This may allow the muscles to become shorter and stronger, thereby helping to tighten back some of the ligaments.  But the individual DOES have to stop cold turkey for best results.

Cracking one’s knuckles, at least in one study, has shown itself to be a falsity.  I have seen chronic self-manipulators, who having no past injury, show signs of osteoarthritis at a very early age.  Perhaps the spine is different than the knuckles, in that it can move, or become misaligned in many more different directions.  Studies will need to be undertaken, if we are to understand more.  

I have a true passion for helping those, especially when it can stave off larger, future problems.  Having back pain, neck stiffness and osteoarthritis is bad enough for those who acquired it through prior injuries or means they couldn’t control.   In this case, kids and adults are unknowingly inflicting small repetitive stresses, which can possibly become larger problems down the road.  

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me.  My intent is to bring this to national attention.  

  4 Responses to “Self-Manipulation of the Spine: A National Epidemic?”

  1. Very interesting! I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know about this, and I do it all the time.

    You are indeed a polymath.


  2. I hope this isn’t off-topic, but what are your thoughts on yoga? Do you have any experience with it yourself? I’ve been practicing for eight or ten weeks now, not so much for pain relief as for balance, flexibility, etc…because I sit all day. I really enjoy it although I’ve been limited so far so a couple of weekend classes so I can’t say I’ve seen dramatic results. But I do plan work in more weekly sessions.

    That you don’t prematurely force the stretches is a no-brainer, and the instructors have been very cautious in this regard, warning people not to push it if they aren’t ready. But I’m interested in hearing any further thots that you, as a Chiro, may have about the practice of yoga in general.

    • I really like yoga. Though its really strong points are balance and flexibility, I also believe it helps with confidence, lowering anxiety and blood pressure, as well as keeping you stronger “internally”. By this I mean it provides better resiliency, so that when you put yourself under future mental and physical stresses, your body is stronger and can adapt better.

      Kudos on your choice Robert.


  3. Excellent Comments! Back and neck pain are true epidemics, my next step is postural reeducation and acupuncture having found that even Statex (morphine) no longer gives short-term relief. Imagine the global costs of neck-spinal pain and injury!

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