Joint Cracking 101: Spine and Joint Cavitation Explained

What is Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation?

We all do it, and, let’s face it, we all love the “pop” we hear when we crack our joints!

And as you twist to “crack your back”…

Or as you gently bend your fingers to “crack your knuckles”…

A Woman Laces Her Fingers Together and Stretches to Prepare for Some Satisfying Joint Cracking
Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation: Defined

Or while you lay on your back, ready for your chiropractic adjustment, you’ve probably wondered…

What does that popping sound even mean?

What happens when the doctor moves my neck and it makes a sound?

Well, when looking at any given joint, you’ll see several surfaces with open cavities or small spaces between them.

Defined

Cavitation is one of the words chiropractors use to describe the associated popping sound you hear and may even feel.

In very basic technical terms, it refers to the often audible formation of vapor and gas bubbles (vapor cavities, consisting primarily of nitrogen) that occur in the fluids that surround a joint when the surfaces of that joint are rapidly separated.

As you probably realized, this is exactly what happens when you receive an adjustment.

Note – your favorite “popping” and “cracking” noises do not indicate whether or not an adjustment was successful (there’s far more to it, and we’ll get into that in a later write-up).

For now, just remember that the beautiful “ear candy” you love to hear during your DIY “joint cracking” sessions and chiropractic adjustments simply equate to the cavities in your joints being infiltrated with air.

That said, let’s take a deeper dive into some anatomy, common myths, and need-to-know facts about cracking and cavitating your joints.

"We just scheduled our first telehealth client tomorrow. Cash! It's a beautiful thing."

Person

Dr. Aixa Goodrich, DC

South Florida Rehab and Wellness Center

Automate Your Marketing

Behind the “Pop” – The Anatomy of a Joint

When we chiropractors talk about the joints of the body, we’re referring to the points where two or more bones meet.

As you can imagine, the joints are vitally important to the structure and function of the human body.

Joints are essential to hold us upright and protect our nerves and blood vessels.

The numerous joints of the spine help protect some 33 pairs of nerves.

The nerves that run around the vertebral joints flow from the brain down and throughout the entire body!

Chiropractic adjustments offer an effective and non-invasive way to help maintain the integrity of the joints – particularly, the facet joints of the spine.

A Young Chiropractic Patient Examine a Scale Model of the Human Lumbar Spine as Their Chiropractor Teaches Them About Joint Cracking, Joint Cavitation, and Joint Anatomy
Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation: Joint Anatomy

The facet joints can be thought of as the “knuckles” or the puzzle pieces of the spine that hold it together.

When you twist around in your chair to “crack” your back, those gas bubbles we covered earlier are forming between your facet joints.

The facet joints, like most of the joints of the body, are highly movable joints known as synovial joints.

These joints have three key features:
  1. The coming together of two or more skeletal elements (bones)
  2. The joint capsule (tissues attached to the bones)
  3. The joint cavity (fluid-filled space within the joint capsule)

To give another example, the elbow joint is comprised of three bones that join together – the humerus, the ulna, and the radius.

These bones are connected by tendons and ligaments that create the joint capsule.

Typically, within that joint cavity within that joint capsule is a small amount of fluid that helps cushion the joints.

You’ll recall that the “pops” that you hear when you’re “cracking” your joints or getting adjustments involves this fluid.

What you’re hearing specifically is the state of some of the fluid within the associated joint capsules changing from liquid to gas or vapor.

Now that you have an idea of what’s actually happening when you “crack” a joint, let’s take a moment to review what’s NOT happening.

Myths about Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation

We’ve all heard the old “wives’ tales” about “cracking” your knuckles.

Someone has almost surely said to you at least once in your life that cracking your joints will give you arthritis – maybe even that cracking your knuckles will make your fingers fat.

So, are either of these true when it comes to cracking and cavitating your joints? No.

Thankfully, this is all false!

Know This

There is no research or documented chiropractic clinical experiences that indicated that cracking your joints leads to the development of arthritis developing or fat fingers!

(Go on, take a moment to crack your knuckles right now! You know you want to after reading that!)

Let’s take a closer look at this and another common myth and, specifically, why you shouldn’t believe them!

Myth: Joint Cracking Causes Arthritis

This one bears repeating because this myth is perhaps the most common misconception that people have.

And as a result, many probably wonder “If cracking joints results in arthritis, how do chiropractors help people?”

So, let’s recap.

We know that the cracking sound that comes from a joint that is being cracked or adjusted is a cavitation.

A Pair of Young Adults Enjoy Cracking Each Others Backs After Learning That Joint Cracking or Joint Cavitation Does Not Lead to Arthritis
Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation: The “Pop”

Cavitation occurs when those gas or vapor pockets form in the joint capsule within the joint cavity as the surfaces of the joint are rapidly separated as is often the case with chiropractic adjustments, knuckle “cracking”, etc.

Basically, when the joints’ bones and muscles are moved, the joint projects a popping or cracking sound as a result of this physiological phenomenon.

When you get up in the morning, start moving around, and hear a few pops and cracks, there is no reason to worry.

Nothing is actually cracking when you stretch your joints and hear those sounds.

So, what is arthritis?

Defined

The term arthritis is used to describe the inflammation of the joints that occurs over an extended period of dysfunction.

Arthrits develops as a result of consistent inappropriate pressure on the bones from either an internal or external source.

Many times, arthritis in and around the joints of the spine develops due to improper use, motion, or continuous pressure from the bones above and below.

Any chiropractor will tell you that if the bones are not in alignment with one another, they’ll almost certainly begin to grind against one another.

That pressure and grinding that accompany such misalignments will typically cause some level of dysfunction in the joints.

We’re talking about possible degeneration of the surrounding bones and other skeletal structures and perhaps the development of osteophytes – better knowns as bone spurs.

Adjusting the spine, as chiropractors do, can go a long way towards helping take the pressure off the joints and structures of the spine which, in turn, can decrease the development of arthritis in the spine and around the body as a whole.

What does all that mean?

A Young Female Chiropractor Adjusts the Upper Body of a Middle Aged Male After Assuring Him that Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation are Nothing to Worry About
Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation: Chiropractic Adjustments

Let’s put it this way – motion is lotion for the body.

Movement-based care can help keep the joints of the body in alignment, help maintain their structural integrity, and help reduce any pressure build-up within the joints.

Rather than contributing to the development of arthritis, those pleasant cavitation-related popping and cracking sounds you often hear when your joints are being adjusted can indicate that the joints have both been mobilized and some level of pressure has been released.

But… what if there’s no “pop”?

Ah, that question takes us to another common misconception…

Myth: No “Crack”, No Cavitation

Another confusing topic about cavitation is the notion that “If I didn’t hear it, nothing happened.”

When you take a moment and think about the fact that your body is constantly moving, it makes sense that this is, in fact, a myth.

One great example of this is the knee joint.

The knee is one body part in which people constantly have medical issues.

We walk all day long, from the moment we rise from our beds in the morning until we lay back down again to get our sleep for the night.

Now, if you have objectively healthy knees, you do NOT hear cracking or popping every time you step or move your knees, right? Right!

The same can be said of the spine.

The vertebrae of your spine are constantly shifting as you bend over, twist, reach, sit down, and stand up, but you do NOT always hear cavitation as they occur.

What about chiropractic adjustments?

Well, despite what many popular YouTube videos may have you thinking, chiropractic adjustments typically result in minimal movement in the joints and structures of the spine.

Know This

The truth is, many times an adjustment will NOT be accompanied by a popping or cracking noise.

When preparing to perform an adjustment, chiropractors examine the spine for areas that need correction most often by feeling for a bone that is out of place.

Once they’ve done that, they’ll proceed to move it around to determine if it is ‘stuck” or perhaps moving too much, and then dispense the appropriate adjustment.

Rather than waiting for a “pop” to indicate whether or not an adjustment was successful, your chiropractor will physically assess the targeted area again to ensure everything is progressing appropriately.

It cannot be stressed enough that the “pops” and “cracks” that you may hear when you’re cracking your own joints or having your body professionally adjusted indicate nothing more than that fluid state change we covered earlier.

Your chiropractor knows this all too well and should be your go-to professional for all things movement-based care.

A Young Boy Smiles and Prepares to Receive an Adjustment From His Favorite Chiropractor After She Explains She Won't Be Cracking His Joints
Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation: Understanding Movement

It’s a fact.

Let’s take a look at a few more while we’re at it!

Facts about Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation

Where there are myths about cavitation, there are also facts.

And some of the following facts about cracking your joints and cavitation shed some light on hearing something “pop” makes us so happy!

Let’s start there.

Fact: Joint Cracking Can Cause Happiness

Many people wonder why hearing their body crack makes them feel better and perhaps even slightly happier for a moment.

Many scientists have wondered the same thing, so much so they decided to investigate.

Fun Fact

There have been multiple studies published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics that highlight a small but statistically significant increase in the beta-endorphin levels of those who experienced “pop” producing joint cavitation sounds.

On average, these changes in beta-endorphin levels lasted about 5 minutes post-adjustment or post “pop.”

In other words, these studies tell us that the popping sound does in fact make us so happy that our brain produces endorphins (commonly referred to as happy hormones) after we experience cavitation we can hear.

Endorphins, of course, are hormones that come from the brain and spread through the body.

They’ve been associated with everything from pain relief to stress relief to mood elevation.

To put those effects in perspective, because of the effects they have within the body, endorphins can be compared to the class of drugs called opioids.

However, unlike opioids, endorphins are all-natural, present in our bodies, and built into our brains from birth.

Now, let’s take a closer look at that “pop.”

Fact: The “Air” in the “Pop” is Actually Nitrogen

Another fun fact about joint cavitation goes back to exactly what we’re hearing.

And, yes, this has also piqued the interest of a number of scientists, and they’ve taken the time to investigate exactly what causes these happy sounds we hear when our joints are being adjusted.

Now, when you get a package marked ‘fragile’ in the mail, usually the items inside come surrounded by bubble wrap to help keep them safe.

One of the best parts of opening that package is going to be popping the bubble wrap and making those wonderful popping sounds.

Obviously, it’s the air inside of each plastic pocket in the bubble wrap that allows us to create those popping sounds.

A Young Boy Enjoys Popping the Individual Air-Filled Pockets in a Sheet of Bubble Wrap
Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation: The Bubble Wrap Comparison

In one recent study, researchers used a small MRI device to watch what happens when a chiropractor delivers an adjustment to the joints of the body.

They observed that when the doctor provided the adjustment, air (in the form of nitrogen) would suddenly slip into the joint at the same time the popping sound was heard.

While further investigation is needed, scientists noticed a clear correlation between that event and the noise.

This study shed some light on how nitrogen moves through the joints of the spine as they move.

It also gives us some additional insight into what occurs in the body in relation to chiropractic adjustments (again, we’ll dive deeper into all of that in a future write-up).

Back to our list of joint cracking and joint cavitation facts.

The next is one you’re sure to have noticed.

Fact: Healthy Joints Can’t Be “Re-Cracked” ASAP

Have you ever tried to crack your knuckles and then 2 minutes later try to crack them again?

If you have you know that most of the time they will not make the popping noise again during the second round.

Here’s why.

Healthy joints have a “refill” period where you can move a bone, but there will be no noise.

Typically, it takes about 20 minutes for the air to be ready again to make its journey through the joint so you can produce that wonderful popping noise.

That said, there’s one area of the body chiropractors do not recommend you crack or “ninja twist” or otherwise attempt to adjust yourself – your neck.

Fact: It’s Not Healthy to “Crack” Your Own Neck

Many, many, many people have wondered if turning your neck until it “pops” is ok to do.

Does it feel amazing? Yes.

But is it good for the ligaments in your neck? No.

It’s still true that those popping noises you hear during your own joint cracking sessions or while you’re getting adjustments have not been found to be related to the development of arthritis.

However, doctors still have to examine the integrity of the ligaments that hold your muscles and bones together both pre and post-adjustment.

Those ligaments hold everything together and while strong, they’re also very delicate.

That’s why chiropractors are trained to move your neck around in very particular motions.

Know This

When you twist your neck beyond it’s normal range, you’re also likely straining the ligaments the structures of the neck together.

Doing this repeatedly can cause those ligaments to begin to relax and ultimately loosen.

Loose ligaments can not only impact how well the structures of the neck work together, but they can become especially problematic when there is trauma to the neck like that sustained in a hard fall or car accident.

Now that we’ve covered what cracking your joints and cavitation does and doesn’t involve as well as some common myths and facts, let’s recap what we’ve learned and key takeaways.

What Chiropractors Want You to Know

So, as with most everything in life, when it comes to cracking your joints and getting adjusted, don’t needlessly worry, don’t “overdo” it, and, simply put, be smart.

Joint cavitation sounds are normal.

At a basic level, they demonstrate to you and your chiropractor alike that your joints are healthy and working correctly.

That’s great news because they can also make us happy!

And there’s no evidence that standard cracking your joints will lead to arthritis, and we know that our favorite popping and cracking sounds have nothing to do with the success of the adjustments you receive from your favorite chiropractor.

A Young Female Athlete Enjoys a Joint Cracking Tutorial From Her Chiropractor After Learning About Joint Cavitation
Joint Cracking and Joint Cavitation: Know the Facts

Even with no sound, there is movement, and sometimes that lack of sound is simply because you just finished cracking a joint.

So, you can enjoy those knuckle-cracking sessions.

Again, don’t worry, don’t “overdo” it, and take note if your joints are cracking on their own constantly or you’re experiencing pain.

Know This

And if you have questions or concerns, your chiropractor is always ready and able to assist you, and they may even be able to see you the same day!

Just give them a call.

A Word About The Smart Chiropractor

Are you a chiropractor or chiropractic para professional?

Thanks for reading!

Our team at The Smart Chiropractor is dedicated to making patient communication easier for DCs and their staff through free resources like our blog and our subscription-based patient-education-focused marketing materials and services.

To learn more about how the marketing campaigns we deliver each month can help you connect with more of your patients in the office, on your social channels, and through email, check out our website at TheSmartChiropractor.com.

Explore The Smart Chiropractor

Email. Social. Strategy.

SEE WHAT'S INSIDE
Send this to a friend