Neck popping or cracking is a common issue, but if it's accompanied by pain, then this could indicate a condition like arthritis. Neck stretches and postural strengthening exercises may relieve pain and prevent further injury. Maintaining good posture is important too.
What Causes Neck Popping?
The older you get, the more likely you are to hear your neck and joints making popping or cracking noises, says the Cleveland Clinic. If the neck popping doesn't cause any pain, then there is nothing to be worried about.
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The cartilage or disks between the vertebrae wear away as you age, causing those cracking or creaking noises. Neck popping could also be the result of air bubbles in the joints.
If the neck popping is accompanied by pain, stiffness, headaches, muscle spasms or tingling and numbness in your arms, then something else could be at play, says the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
The most likely cause of neck crepitus, or cracking in the neck, accompanied by pain is arthritis of the neck or cervical spondylosis, says the AAOS. Genetics, smoking and certain occupations, especially those involving overhead work or lots of repetitive neck motions, can all put you at risk for neck arthritis.
Luckily, almost all cases can be treated without surgery. Exercise, medication, ice or heat therapy and sometimes steroid injections may help relieve the pain.
Exercise Ideas for Neck Cracking
The following neck cracking exercises will help decrease the pain that goes along with neck popping by stretching and strengthening the muscles in this area.
As you perform them, pay attention to pain and other issues, like tingling and numbness down your arms. The symptoms should gradually subside and/or move out of your arms and become more centralized in your neck, says the North American Spine Society (NASS).
The pain should then eventually improve and disappear. If your symptoms get worse or move further away from your neck, stop the exercise. Perform these movements once or twice a day to reap the benefits.
Move 1: Neutral Head Position
- Practice good posture by keeping your chest up and shoulders back.
- Keep your head in a "neutral" position, which means that your ears are aligned directly over your shoulders when looking at them from the side.
- Practice maintaining your head in this correct position and don't let it fall forward.
Move 2: Supine Retraction (Chin Tuck)
- Place your fingers on your chin and push your head straight back as far as it will go.
- Keep your face looking forward.
- You will feel a stretch in the back of your neck.
- Hold for one to two seconds and then let it return to normal.
- Repeat eight to 10 times, three to four sessions per day.
Move 3: Prone Head Lifts
- Lay on your stomach and prop up on your elbows.
- Let your head hang down so your chin is near your chest.
- Left your head up, while you tuck your chin in.
- Continue lifting your head, attempting to look up at the ceiling.
- Hold for five seconds and slowly return down to the head hanging position.
- Repeat five times, twice a day.
Move 4: Supine Head Lifts
- Lay on your back.
- Raise your head off the surface, bringing your chin to your chest.
- Hold for five seconds and return down to the surface.
- Repeat eight to 10 times, twice a day.
Move 5: Scapular Retraction (Shoulder Blade Squeezes)
- Stand with your arms bent at your sides, with your head in a neutral position.
- Pull both shoulders back, squeezing shoulder blades together.
- Hold for 10 seconds. Perform one set of five reps, twice a day.
- Progress to using cables at a gym or an elastic band for resistance.
Move 6: Neck Rotation
- Sit or stand with your neck in a neutral position.
- Slowly turn your head to the left as far as you can go without pain or discomfort. Hold for five seconds.
- Slowly turn the other direction and hold for five seconds.
- Perform one set of five reps, twice a day.
How to Relieve Neck Pain
Arthritis that results in neck crepitus and pain takes time to develop, but there are things you can do to help prevent your neck pain from getting worse. Postural strengthening exercises and stretches should be a part of your daily routine.
Read more: Exercises to Relieve Neck Muscle Spasms
Also, it's important to avoid staying in one position too long, says Harvard Health Publishing. Try to take frequent breaks and change positions, especially if you're at work. Keep your computer at eye level so your neck stays in a neutral position. Adjust your computer or your chair if necessary.
Make sure you aren't using too many pillows at night as this can put your neck in a position that causes pain. Try to keep your neck in a neutral position while sleeping.
Last, take the steps needed to get a good night's sleep. Inadequate rest may contribute to musculoskeletal pain and other chronic conditions, says Harvard Health Publishing.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Cervical Spondylosis (Arthritis of the Neck)"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Snap, Crackle, Pop: What You Need to Know About Joint Noises"
- North American Spine Society: "Cervical Exercise: The Backbone of Spine Treatment"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "6 Ways to Ease Neck Pain"