- It's important to crack your neck the right way because the wrong way can lead to new types of pain.
- When cracking your neck, do it gently from side to side, slowly stretching out the muscles.
- When done right, cracking your neck can relieve headaches and pain in the lower back.
A stiff neck can be caused by trauma like from a car accident, repetitive movements, poor posture while sitting at a computer, diseases like arthritis, or even muscle tension from stress.
With so many possible triggers, it's no wonder that over 30% of Americans experience neck pain each year, and about half have recurring neck pain.
That's where cracking your own neck can come in handy, even though it may not be the best form of relief.
In addition to relieving neck pain, cracking your neck may help with headaches, lower back pain, and joint conditions. But if you do it wrong you can strain muscles, pinch nerves, or increase inflammation, says Mahmud Kara, MD, founder of KaraMD.
Here's how to crack your neck, why you should talk to a doctor before trying, and what other methods might work better for pain relief.
How to crack your neck
Before you try to crack your neck, it's important to talk to a doctor. They can help identify any underlying causes and make sure it's safe for you to crack your neck at home, says Grandominico.
Once you've talked to your doctor, it's best to focus on small, slow movements, says Granominico. Cracking your neck should feel like a gentle stretch, with no straining, twisting, turning, or jerking, he says. People often try to crack their neck with too much force.
While it's important to get instructions from your own medical professional, here's a basic step-by-step for how to crack your neck, according to Granominico:
1. Take a standing or seated position, with your back straight.
2. Place one hand on your lower back with your palm facing in. Place the other on top of your head, palm down, with your fingers reaching toward the opposite ear.
3. Use the hand on your head to gently pull your ear toward your shoulder. If you're starting on the right side, your right arm should be pulling your right ear toward your right shoulder.
4. Hold for 30 seconds.
5. Then, switch the hand that is on your head and repeat steps 1-4 on the opposite side.
There's no need for towels, straps, or other devices, says Granominico.
When you crack your neck, fingers, toes, or back, what you're actually doing is stretching the joint, says Kara.
The area between your joints is filled with synovial fluid, a substance that reduces friction and keeps you moving freely. When the space in the joint increases during the stretch, bubbles in this fluid are under less pressure so they expand, and that's what's thought to make the pop, causing the cracking sound.
"This in turn can help to reduce tension and pain, and improve motion," says Granominico.
Stretching your neck and joints can have these benefits even when you don't hear a pop or crack. A small study found that people interpret that cracking noise as a sign of release. So even though a crack or pop isn't necessary for physical relief, it may have a placebo effect.
If you crack your neck incidentally using the gentle method described above, the risk of harming yourself is minimal. But people often try dramatic movements to crack their neck, which can make existing pain worse or cause new types of pain.
"If done incorrectly, neck cracking can lead to pinched nerves, joint or muscle strain, and increased injury or inflammation," says Kara. That might leave you experiencing more frequent neck pain or even migraines, he says.
For some people, neck cracking can become a habit. Over time, that can damage blood vessels and in rare cases increase stroke risk.
You should see a doctor if you experience any of the following after cracking your neck:
- Any increased pain
- Restricted movement
- Find yourself cracking your neck more frequently – like multiple times each week
Other ways to relieve a stiff or tense neck
For many people, there are better ways to treat a stiff neck than cracking it, says Kara.
Here's what might help:
- Apply heat and ice: Alternate hot and cold, with at least two hours off in between, since heat will relax muscle and ice can reduce inflammation.
- Use over-the-counter pain meds: Ibuprofen or naproxen will relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Follow dosage recommendations on the container.
- Gently massage and stretch the sore area.
Cracking your neck is really about stretching your joints. The cracking sound happens when air bubbles in the fluid within your joints pop, due to the extra room from the stretch. That can reduce pressure and leave you feeling better.
However, if you crack your neck too aggressively, you risk additional injury. Because of that, Kara recommends that most people stick with gentle stretching and go see a chiropractor or doctor of osteopathic medicine if they need more intensive relief.
"Even though neck cracking is a common practice, it is best performed by a professional," he says.