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  • Writer's pictureTo Your Health Editorial Staff

Why does back cracking feel so good? The 'pop' explained

There's something about the sound of a crack in your back as you stretch that can feel just so darn satisfying. In fact there are entire social media feeds devoted to this "ahh" feeling: video after video of people instinctively groaning in pleasure as their back loudly pops.

But what is actually going on when you get this audible release? And is it safe?

The first thing to understand, says Dr Giovanni Ferreira, a physiotherapist and researcher at University of Sydney's Institute for Musculoskeletal Health, is that the cracking has nothing to do with joints being put back into place.

"What happens is a much more simple physiological process, which is the sound the joints make when they're pulled apart," Ferreira says.

He explains that the phenomenon occurs because of a process called "tribonucleation", which is when two opposing surfaces, in this case the joints, resist separation until they reach a critical point whereby a force causes them to slightly but rapidly separate.

When this happens, the lubricant inside the joint, called synovial fluid, suddenly has more space to move around and a little gas bubble forms – it's the creation of this teeny gas cavity within the joint that's responsible for the popping sound. In 2015, scientists researching this released a video of an MRI scan showing this very process, formally called "joint cavitation".

So why does it feel so great? There are some interesting factors at play which help explain why some people get an urge to crack their backs.

Ferreira says cracking joints may trigger a release of "feel-good" chemicals, like endorphins, which help relieve pain. Then there is the power of the mind. There is research suggesting that a placebo effect may be involved, with people enjoying the feeling and the sound despite clinical effects of spinal treatment often being the same with or without a "pop".

But it's certainly not all just in your head. Manipulating the spinal joints can help relieve pain and improve some range of movement, Ferreira says.

Dr Aron Downie, a lecturer at Macquarie University's Department of Chiropractic, explains: "It provides movement into the spinal joints and this is thought to provide some pain relief … it provides a sense of muscle stretch as well."

"However some people can get into the habit of self-manipulation because it does feel good and, in the majority of people, on its own it's unlikely to be effective for the management of back pain and therapists should agree with that as well."

Downie says back pain is a very real problem: at any one time up to a third of people will find it limits their daily activities. The key, he says, is to manage it in a holistic way to prevent it from persisting.

"Cracking your back for pain relief isn't a solution for sitting at a computer all day," Downie says.

"[Back pain] should only be considered within a program of overall flexibility, fitness and especially strength, and things like posture.

"There are less obvious drivers to back pain as well like sleep, mental health, nutrition."

Chiropractors, physiotherapists, osteopaths and some GPs are trained in spinal manipulative therapy and other overall pain management methods.

Not everyone needs to see a therapist, Downie says, particularly if you only occasionally twist and pop your back without issue. But if you find you regularly have an urge to crack, there may be underlying problems to address.

"[Cracking is] like rebooting a computer that keeps crashing, instead of addressing the fault that's in the hard drive," Downie says. "If you feel you're doing it often, I would really seek the opinion of a health professional."

A small proportion of chiropractors focus on joint popping alone, but Downie says this isn't following clinical guidelines for treating back pain. It's why he says if a chiropractor or other therapist isn't giving you strategies to look after yourself in a constructive way, find someone else.

Ferreira agrees: "You need a treatment approach that will be more active than passive … If someone goes to a health professional and all they talk about is the massage they will give or the back cracking, that's a red flag."

Usually, joint cracking is harmless. There is no strong evidence it causes arthritis. But there are some risks, Downie says, particularly with the neck region, such as increased pain, headaches, pinched nerves and, on very rare occasions, blood supply disruption leading to stroke.

Downie warns against cracking your own neck, which should only be performed by a qualified professional after a thorough examination.

He also stresses that if you do want to self-manipulate your lower back, do so with slow stretches rather than rapid twisting movements.

Ferreira adds that moving your back through stretches and exercises is important. He suggests three spine mobility movements that are safe to do at home – maybe even with that pop.

Bending backwards: Lie face down with your palms on the floor near your shoulders. Press your hands into the floor to gently lift your chest upwards and bend your back backwards.

Knees to chest: While lying on your back, bring your knees up towards your chest and hold with your arms wrapped around your legs.

Side-lying rotations: Lie on your back with your arms outstretched on either side. Bend your hips and knees together about 90 degrees on your right side, while having your head looking to your left. Then swap sides.

Article from SMH

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