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Is Cracking Your Neck Dangerous? How It Can Lead to a Stroke

It's rare, but this everyday habit can lead to big issues.

Is Cracking Your Neck Dangerous? How It Can Lead to a Stroke
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Cracking your neck can feel oh so satisfying, but is it safe? Josh Hader, a 28-year-old man from Oklahoma, made headlines last week after severing his vertebral artery when he cracked his neck, which caused him to suffer a stroke. According to Science Direct, the vertebral artery is a major source of blood supply in the cervical spine and spinal cord, which, “runs cranially through the foramina of the transverse processes of the cervical vertebrae to the base of the skull." Injuries to it are usually caused by blunt trauma. 

This is all obviously horrifying for those of us who live for that satisfying pop, so we just had to know: Is cracking your neck really that dangerous?

Dr. Steven Diamant, a New York City chiropractor, who has been in practice for 37 years, advises against any self-manipulation of the neck. “It’s definitely not good,” Diamant says. “I have a lot of patients that come in and they start cracking their own neck—many of them 10, 15 times a day." If you really feel the need to get cracking, you're better off leaving any adjustments to the pros.

“The reason [people crack their neck] is they probably have discomfort,” Diamant continues. “I instruct them that with proper chiropractic adjustments, you won’t feel the need to do that because I’m adjusting the spine properly.” And contrary to popular belief, the audible pop you hear when you crack your neck is nothing more than gas in the fluid of your joints being released during an adjustment. "A lot of patients are accustomed to wanting that sound. They think something is happening,” he added.

As part of their joint list, the “Top 10 Things to Know About Cervical Arterial Dissections and Association with Cervical Manipulative Therapy,” the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association similarly implore that: “Patients should be informed of the potential association between cervical dissection and cervical manipulative therapy prior to manipulation of the cervical spine.”

In other words, don’t just go cracking your own neck for the thrill of that satisfying sound. “With [people attempting self-manipulation], they don’t know if they’re putting anything in place or out of place; all they know is they’re getting relief,” Diamant adds. “But the relief gets shorter, so that’s why they feel the need to do it more and more and they start to sprain their neck.” Or worse, as evidenced by the Oklahoma story.

That being said, the chances of you severing your vertebral artery are extremely rare, and according to Science Direct, only 1 in 20,000 chiropractic manipulations results in a stroke from vertebral artery dissection.

“You have a much better chance of getting hit by lightning than having that happen,” Diamant says. “That gives you an idea of the risks there.”

Dr. Benjamin Wedro, an emergency specialist from La Crosse, Wisconsin and the man behind DocTalk, has seen the case in the ER, but says suffering a stroke as a result of a torn vertebral artery from cracking your neck is more likely to be caused by some sort of blunt force than it is during a self-manipulation attempt. Still, he relegates it to poor misfortune.

“It was just bad luck for him,” Wedro says of the Oklahoma man. “You’re not popping your neck, you’re just stretching some muscles and you’re getting a little air pocket that goes pop. So, it’s not like you’re doing anything physiologically terrible to it; it was just bad luck on his part.”

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