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Why Do Joints Crack?

Published on 22nd November 2016

Why do my joints “crack”, and is it dangerous? 

Let’s go myth-busting and learn amazing facts about what causes this harmless phenomenon

Why people expect to hear “the crack”

Many of our patients have seen chiropractors, osteopaths, or physiotherapists before finding their way into our offices. Their previous experiences with bodywork methods that manipulate joints often colour their expectations when stepping into our offices. Most people expect us to do the same or at least something similar to what their old chiropractor, osteopath, or other practitioner did. Advanced Biostructural Correction™, however, is completely different from any of the traditional methods. If you look at it from a mechanical point of view, we do the exact opposite of traditional chiropractors, you can read about it HERE. Traditional chiropractors or osteopaths place you face down and push on your back, pushing bones into a “forward” direction. We stand you up against a wall and push bones in a “backward” direction. It’s actually a crucial difference! If you have been following our blog for any length of time, you will know that “forward” actually is a bad direction from which your body cannot self-correct bones. So we don’t want to do that.

Regardless of all these crucial technical differences, many of our patients expect to hear or feel a “cracking” or popping noise when we treat their spines. Their chiropractor or osteopath may have produced the noise during treatment and they have come to expect a “cracking soundtrack” while undergoing treatment. Some people equate the presence of the noise with temporary relief and assume that lasting correction has occurred when the noise happened. Other patients are worried when they hear the popping sound. They assume it’s a sign that their joints become “loose” or that their bones break.

Most of the manoeuvres we use during the Advanced Biostructural Correction™ treatment protocol are actually very gentle – much more so than what you may be used to from your previous chiropractor or osteopath. Some of the manoeuvres we use can be a bit more intense – particularly the full-spine stretches to loosen up adhesions or “sticking points” in the meninges. During some of these manoeuvres you may hear a popping sound in your neck or back. So let’s explore where that noise actually comes from…

Popping joints: what really happens

In order to understand how the noise happens, we briefly have to consider what a typical joint looks like. It is formed by two bones that move together. Bones don’t want to rub together, however. Where two bones meet to form a joint, there is a small gap between them – the so-called joint cavity. The joint itself is surrounded by fibrous tissue which forms the joint capsule. The joint cavity contains a little bit of fluid (called “synovial fluid”) to keep things lubricated and to help the bones glide against each other during movement without rubbing together. This keeps the cartilage at the end of the bones healthy and in good shape.


image: Wikimedia

Imagine a joint becoming “stuck”. As we treat stuck joints, we pull them apart slightly. This creates a difference in pressure between the outside and the inside of the joint capsule. This pressure difference creates a tiny gas bubble inside the lubricating fluid in the joint space. As the joint gets pulled apart, this bubble shifts position – and that’s what the noise is all about. In other words, it’s much ado about nothing. It’s not dangerous, it’s not bones breaking or cracking, it’s not your back or neck breaking. It’s simply a gas bubble floating around inside the joint space. The technical name for this phenomenon is “cavitation”. In 2015, scientists managed to capture this phenomenon on special imaging for the first time. Check out the VIDEO here to see for yourself what goes on inside your body as your joints make that popping noise!

The underlying principle is the same, whether you are cracking your finger joints or whether a chiropractor or osteopath is “cracking your neck or back”. It is all about the gas bubble. It has no relevance as to whether the manoeuvre “worked” or “didn’t work”. It says nothing about whether a lasting correction was achieved or not. Each time you crack your fingers, a joint gets moved a little.

But, it doesn’t mean permanent corrective changes have occurred.

Why we don’t “crack” joints

With Advanced Biostructural Correction™, our main goal is to fix structural body problems. Our goal is to move bones back into their correct position. It takes very little pressure to reposition bones in this way – oftentimes much less force is needed to make the correction than the amount of force needed to produce the noise. In fact, sometimes hearing the noise means that we used a little too much force and created a little extra work for ourselves because the extra little bit of force moved other bones into a “forward” direction – and we then have to fix those. We don’t care about providing temporary relief by “cracking” all your stuck joints. This only removes compensation patterns shifts the pain and stiffness to a new location. We care about making lasting changes by addressing only those problems that your body can’t fix by itself – while leaving your body to do the rest of the work and unwind the things it can unwind by itself in between visits.

Now you’ve learned a few important facts:

  • “The crack” is produced by the shifting of a gas bubble inside the joint space while a stuck joint is getting pulled apart slightly.
  • The presence or absence of the noise has nothing to do with whether actual correction occurred.
  • The presence or absence of the noise therefore has no bearing on whether “it worked” or not.
  • Our goal is to move bones into correct positions. Our goal is not noise production.

The presence or absence of the popping sound may be influenced by what a patient needs on a given visit, and also on patient size vs. practitioner size:

  • We can control how much force we use. This is different for each patient and each joint. It may even vary for the same patient from visit to visit
  • Some of it is determined by patient size; some of it depends on the size of the practitioner. Taller people have more leverage than shorter people and may therefore have a more “forceful” natural style when they carry out the treatment. Vice versa, shorter practitioners may be a little more “gentle” in their approach
  • A lot of it depends on the hand size of the practitioner. Smaller hands can be placed in a more specific position along the spine because they fit between the muscles along the spine. Larger hands have to go across the muscles – which means a little more force is needed to get the same result of moving the bone back into place. This difference in hand size and hand position may determine the presence or absence of “the crack”.

You may experience this difference yourself when you see a different one of our practitioners, e.g. when your regular practitioner goes on holiday. Don’t let yourself get fooled into thinking that

  • Nothing happened because “it didn’t crack”
  • Practitioner A is doing something different from Practitioner B because one produces more “cracks” than the other
  • “The crack” just broke your back/neck/whatever other joint. It’s simply not true.

If you are concerned about any popping sounds in your back or neck, please talk to your practitioner about it. If you feel stiffness in your back or neck, chances are we can help to get your joints unstuck. Schedule a free consultation with one of our practitioners, who will be happy to explain in more detail what we do with Advanced Biostructural Correction™.

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