Cracking and grinding noises that sometimes occur during neck movement are common. It is usually painless and is not serious. This phenomenon is called crepitus, and can be caused by pressure changes in the joints, ligament or tendon movements near their bony attachments, or arthritic joints grinding together, or gas bubbles collapsing in the joints.

Crepitus can become more frequent as you age due to weakening of the tendons and ligaments over time. Other factors can include swelling or stiffness, injury such as whiplash, degenerative changes, or changes after surgery.

Crepitus can be associated with pain. Bone on bone grinding is usually associated with pain and could be serious, necessitating a visit to your healthcare provider.

Just as there is no medical evidence that cracking your knuckles can cause arthritis, going to a chiropractor and having your neck manipulated and hearing the cracking noises also does not cause arthritis.

You should refrain from cracking your neck yourself repetitively as it could result in overstretching or injury to the neck if not done correctly. Feeling like you need to crack your neck often suggests hypermobility of the neck. Doing this repeatedly can result in instability.  If you feel stiffness in the neck joints, it is best to see a healthcare provider who may recommend some the following:

  • Stretches and exercises
  • Ways to improve your neck posture
  • Refrain from sleeping on multiple pillows
  • Keeping your phone or computer screen at face level and refrain from looking down
  • Applying moist heat
  • Additional medical treatment such as physical therapy, or chiropractic care

David BenEliyahu, DC, FICC,
Administrative Director, Back Neck Pain Center at Mather Hospital