Health and Wellbeing
Neck pain: Why is my neck crunching and what should I do about it?
When people come to see a physiotherapist with neck pain, there’s often various secondary symptoms. This can include crunching, clicking or cracking in the neck.
If this correlates with the onset of pain, this can be concerning and lead to increased hesitancy to move your neck. In this blog, our physiotherapist James Bainbridge will discuss what causes this crunching, what it means and what you should do about it!
What causes the noise?
Our necks comprise of 7 bones (vertebrae), separated by discs. These vertebrae are able to move across each other via facet joints. Facet joints guide the movements of our necks, allowing us to look up, down, left and right. These joints, like most in the body, are surrounded by a capsule of synovial fluid to lubricate the joints.
This fluid contains natural gas, so when movement occurs at the joints this gas can be released from the fluid. This is even more common with rapid movements like fast turns or impacts to the neck. The release of the gas is what can create a clicking, crunching or popping noise.
In the vast majority of neck noises, this will be the main cause. Generally, it’s mostly unrelated pain, even in those with degenerative changes to the joints such as arthritis. Recent research suggests that between 33% and 80% (age-dependent) of people aged between 20-70 years old with no pain at all had degenerative changes at the neck on scans of the neck.
One of the reasons that this noise can seem particularly loud or uncomfortable is due to the joints of the neck being so close to the ears. Therefore, it’s much easier to hear. This is amplified when neck pain is experienced. Hesitancy to move the neck in the anticipation of pain only furthers our awareness of joint movements.
Should I click my neck?
Despite people often reporting their neck clicking as a symptom, it is also commonly reported that by clicking their neck their pain is eased. Although the noise associated is mostly harmless, deliberately clicking your neck by applying rapid forces in rotation of the neck can be harmful. each side of your neck your vertebral arteries run in between the joints (seen in red in the picture above), which are an incredibly important pair of arteries carrying oxygenated blood to the brain. As the primary source of oxygenated blood to the brainstem, compromise of these arteries could cause a stroke, paralysis or even death.
The chances of this occurring during “normal” movements of the neck such as looking behind you or looking up and down are incredibly small. However, placing your neck in very extreme positions and applying force to deliberately cause neck cracking carries a greater risk. Healthcare professionals, such as osteopaths, are specially trained in safely performing these manipulations, therefore it is always best to seek professional help if you do wish for these manipulations to be performed.
When should I be concerned about my neck crunching?
As a sole symptom, crunching of the neck is not a problem. However, if you are experiencing any of these symptoms with or without crunching, then please immediately seek medical advice:
- Problems with speech
- Double vision
- Problems with swallow
- Paralysis in one or both arms
If you are still concerned with your neck crunching and neck pain in general, seek advice from a professional. They will be able to assess and help you manage your symptoms. Both massage and acupuncture, combined with specific exercise are effective forms of treatment for those suffering with neck pain. Advice on easing symptoms and education on pain management strategies will also be given.