As a chiropractor I have heard the popping noise that joints make and the process of popping a joint referred to in many different ways. Patients often ask, "Are you going to snap my back?" "Will you crack my neck?" "I think my back is out of alignment, I need you to put it back in." and so on. Are parts of the neck really snapping or cracking to cause that noise? What's really happening when you or your chiropractor pops your neck, back, or other joint?
The joints in your spine, knuckles, knees, etc. have fluid within the joint space that keeps it lubricated. When the joint is stretched the pressure within the joint space changes. If the joint is stretched far enough the pressure within it changes so much that gas is formed within the fluid filled space. This gas is then released from the joint, causing the "pop" noise.
After this has occurred pressure gradually returns to the joint space and the joint can be "popped" again. This is why you can't repeatedly pop your knuckles over and over with no time in between. The bottom line is: when a chiropractor pops your back or other joint he is stretching the joint enough to cause this effect.
Now that we've discussed what the pop is, let's emphasize what it is not. The popping is not bones in your neck or back shifting into or out of place. Bones are not being broken or slammed together. Nothing is being snapped in two. This misconception is dangerous for many reasons, the most important probably being that it can lead to chiropractic patients feeling helpless. If a person believes their back or neck pain is due to bones in their spine coming dislodged or out of place and they need a chiropractor to regularly stack them back into place like a Jenga tower then that person might feel helpless in terms of improving and maintaining their condition. When chiropractic was originally conceived it was thought that bones were being moved into place. We have since learned otherwise, but the misconception has stuck around. This is most likely because the simplicity of the idea that bones are being popped in and out of their correct place is much more easily conceived and quite frankly more exciting than stretching joint capsules.
So why is popping important? If bones aren't being moved into place then why is it important that chiropractors pop joints? As mentioned before the bones aren't moving in and out of place, but the joint capsules are being stretched. This stretch of the joint capsule leads to an increased range of motion of that joint. Sometimes a persons pain or other symptoms are caused by a lack of motion of a joint and this works to correct that. The stretch of the joint also causes neurological changes at the area that can reduce muscle tension and pain feedback to the brain. These effects resulting from the joint capsule stretch can reduce neck and back pain, muscle stiffness, headaches, and other musculoskeletal symptoms.
Chiropractors train to be able to identify which joints lack proper motion and how to safely stretch these joints and refer to this process as an adjustment. Which is why you may see a sour look flash across your chiropractor's face if you ask him to "crack" or "snap" your neck.These phrases bring to mind fractures, dislocation, sprains, and strains of the spine which every chiropractor has spent years training to avoid. If your chiropractor adjusts your joints it is in hopes to improve the function of the joint to give your body a better quality of movement and reduce pain. Adjustments are typically completely comfortable and most patients say that they feel great.
How often does a joint need to be adjusted? It depends. Unfortunately there is not a straight forward answer that applies to everyone. Everyone and every body is different. Even after range of motion has been improved at a joint it can sometimes become tight again after treatment. However, your chiropractor will also perform muscle work and instruct you in at-home exercises and stretches that will aid in making the improved function at the joint the new norm.
I hope this article answers some of the questions regarding chiropractic adjustments while also correcting some common misconceptions. If you have other questions regarding joint popping or the process of a chiropractic adjustment, ask your chiropractor! Chiropractors love it when patients take an interest in their treatment and make it their goal to answer any questions you may have.
Want to learn more about chiropractic adjustments and the effects?
Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Dojo0j0Crw
To see a video explaining more about the physiology of joint popping TedEd has a video as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjiKUmfaZr4
Need chiropractic treatment? We'd love to be your Lebanon TN. Chiropractor!
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