Many times patients will ask me, “If they say popping your knuckles frequently is bad and leads to arthritis why are you cracking my back so often?"

To explain this let us first understand the ‘cracking’ sound that occurs. It is called a cavitation and happens when there is a sudden change in pressure inside a joint. A joint in the body has two bone surfaces that are held together by a ligamentous capsule and has synovial fluid inside. The change in pressure creates a shift in the nitrogen gas in the synovial fluid and a vibration occurs through the ligamentous capsule giving off the sound. The outcome of this is increased range of motion for that joint.

When a Chiropractor delivers a specific adjustment he/she has determined that a vertebra is switched off neurologically, and therefore needs to be switched back on in order to correctly pass the information from brain to body, and body to brain.

One of the 5 main features of a switched off vertebra is decreased range of motion; so you can understand by adjusting that vertebra and cavitating (clicking) the joint there will be an increase in joint range of motion as the vertebra is switched back on. It is important to remember:

  1. The adjustment is to restore the communication between brain and body, the cavitation is simply a secondary part of the manual process.
  2. Not all adjustments are given manually, not all adjustments have an associated cavitation. Therefore a cavitation is not a sign of a successful adjustment.

Let us now understand the complications of frequent knuckle popping. Every joint in the body has an ideal range of motion. If there is too little or too much the brain receives this information and creates a response. If someone is frequently (a few times per day) popping their knuckles, this will, over time, create hypermobility of the knuckle joints. The brain perceives hypermobility (too much movement) as a negative state and therefore will force the joint to reduce its range of motion.

A frequent knuckle cracker will experience the following:

  • Initially muscle and ligament tightness (people who click their knuckles will often tell you that their knuckles feel stiff and that is why they need to click them!).
  • Thereafter, increased bone formation around the joint, fusing the joint surfaces together (arthritis or degenerative changes).

Now the comparison:

  1. Few times per day knuckle popping – at most I will adjust someone once per day for two weeks and thereafter, once they are holding the neurological correction, I will reduce the frequency down to their maintainable frequency.
  2. Same way of knuckle popping – there are 26 vertebra in an adult spine and 6 different directions of movement. Therefore at each visit, I will assess the correct direction (of the correct vertebra) of stimulus needed and make the specific adjustment to that vertebra in that complex 3D manner. Rarely the same way and the same vertebra more than 6 visits in a row. Once that vertebra is switched back on and has complete range of motion then we leave it be.
  3. Generally switched off vertebra have muscle and ligament spasms plus the joint surfaces have undergone degeneration when the patient first comes to see me. As part of the process of restoring correct communication between brain and body there will be a reduction and in some cases a clearing of this degeneration!

There is a big difference between knuckle popping and back cracking; knuckle cracking is not good for your joints but Chiropractic Care leads to optimal health.