You arrive home from work, placing your keys in a circular bowl next to your front door. You can start to feel your low back pain symptoms creeping up — you've popped your back out of joint yet again. Your first thought is, "I need to make an appointment with my chiropractor," but you look at your phone and the office is already closed. What can you do? You may start to wonder if cracking your own back is a viable option.
Chiropractic care helps your body heal in a non-invasive way. One technique your practitioner might use to help you is spinal manipulation. This treatment includes massage, physical therapy, and exercise in an effort to alleviate low back pain. It's generally regarded as safe, particularly when care is managed by trained professionals.
While it's recommended that you have a chiropractor handle your spinal manipulation, you may feel the desire to crack your own back. Cracking your back isn't generally harmful, should you do it?
Should You Crack Your Back?
When that uncomfortable feeling of restriction settles between the joints in your back, the first thing you want to do is crack your back. That release offers instant relief and allows your back to move more freely. While cracking your back every so often is all right, if you find yourself cracking your back daily or multiple times per day, it may be the sign of another condition. Seeing a licensed chiropractor can help you address tension issues within your spinal joints, and pinpoint conditions that cracking your back will exacerbate and not solve.
"If a joint is hypermobile (moves too much), it might feel good to 'self-crack', but you’ll be making your problem worse," says Dr. Daniel Shaye of Performance Chiropractic in Williamsburg, Virginia. "The spine is wired in a way that it’s sometimes hard to tell what the pain generator is going by symptoms alone. Having a neutral (and trained) third party evaluate and treat the cause(s) is wise."
Shaye mentions self-manipulation has even caused strokes, in extreme cases. He advises thinking about why your back may be hurting in the first place before deciding to crack your back.
“Whenever you feel like you need to self-manipulate is a good starting point to ask yourself if a chiropractor would be best suited to handle this," states Shaye. "Treatment needs to be paired to the problem. If a part hurts, [ask yourself] does it need to be stretched, or exercised, or massaged, or manipulated? Doing the wrong thing may be useless, or harmful."
If cracking your back is accompanied by pain—stop. While cracking your back is widely considered harmless and no evidence supports long-term joint damage as a result, chiropractors prefer for you to use stretches and massage to get relief from your joint tension.
“It’s safe to gently stretch and if something goes “pop” then that’s typically not an issue. Self-manipulation — especially involving sudden movements or excessive twisting and leveraging joints — is generally ill-advised,” says Shaye.
He adds that spine-related pain that doesn’t go away in a few days, that radiates, that is incapacitating and/or interferes with activity, or that is the result of trauma (or sometimes without trauma), should be treated by a chiropractor or other medical professional.
"Not everyone who 'cracks their back' will end up in worse shape than when they started, but some will!” says Shaye.
How to Safely Crack Your Back at Home
Ultimately, if cracking your back brings relief, you’re probably fine to keep doing it. It's not advised, however, to have friends or family members assist you by stepping on your back or lifting you from the ground.
Here are a few ways you can crack your back through stretches:
- Cobra or child's pose
- Rocking stretch
- Slow crunch
- Leg-over-leg stretch
- Using an exercise ball
- Sit and reach stretch
While these are designed to provide temporary relief, If you want lasting relief, visiting a chiropractor and spending a few minutes stretching your back and spine each day may provide the best relief long term.