Recently a patient of ours asked:
“I have had a mild low back ache for a while, and once in a while I will stretch it to make it feel better. The other day while I was stretching, I heard my back go, ‘pop, pop, pop!’ The popping didn’t really help the pain, but it did feel really good.
“It made the same sounds that you hear when you crack your own knuckles. What was happening there? And, is it good or bad to get my back to pop? Is it normal?
I am going to answer your questions by starting with the knuckles. Cracking knuckles is an age-old controversy. It drives your mom crazy and it makes your friends jealous that you can do it so well. It looks cool in the movies because it means you are about to do something cool, but then again, your school teacher will smack you with a ruler if she hears that again.
Your knuckles are simple joints called “synovial” joints. They are two bones that come together, and they have a cap of cartilage on each end. There is a ligament capsule that surrounds the joint and also holds synovial fluid in place. The two ends of the bones are held together pretty tightly, and they always have a thin layer of fluid that lubricates the cartilage and keeps everything wet.
That thin layer of fluid creates hydrostatic pressure between the cartilage ends. Picture two panes of glass that are against each other with water between the two of them. The water makes it hard to pull the two sheets of glass apart. And if you were to suddenly force the sheets of glass apart, the sudden force needed to overcome the water’s hold on the glass will suddenly cause them to release from each other. Almost with a pop.
The same thing happens in your knuckles. When you suddenly pull your knuckles apart, or you suddenly bend them to hyper flex them, they also will pop. With the synovial fluid, they have hydrostatic pressure that holds them together, and when that pressure is overcome then your knuckles will pop as the pressure is suddenly released. One of the big differences here is that your synovial fluid is a different kind of solution than water. Synovial fluid is thicker and has different kinds of proteins within it. When your knuckles pop, there are gasses that escape from suspension that fill in some of the space in the synovial capsule of the joint.
That gas escape from the fluid is one of the reasons why you can’t pop your knuckles again for 20 minutes after you pop them the first time.
But is popping your own knuckles bad for you? Well, no. It’s not.
Unless you are willfully damaging your joints by trying too hard, you aren’t causing arthritis or anything like that. You might actually be protecting your joints from future arthritis. There are a couple of studies I’ve heard of where they surveyed elderly people who have a lifetime habit of cracking knuckles and compared them to the people who did not crack their own knuckles through their lives. After being age-matched, the researchers found that if you crack your knuckles, you will be less likely to develop arthritis.
So this brings us back to your back. What happens when you crack your own back? Our answer is that “it depends.”
I think that if you are just doing a regular stretch and your back happens to pop, it’s nothing to be alarmed about. It doesn’t feel painful, and it’s not causing stress on ligaments. One part of this that I would caution you about is that if your back is spontaneously popping like that, then you might have a functional problem in some of your joints that is causing instability, and if this is the case, then you need to get your spine checked for developing problems. See your chiropractor.
If you are forcing your back to pop, then I say this is a bad habit, and you should stop. But I don’t say this for the reason that you are thinking. If you have to force your spine to pop, then you are messing with a structure that is far more complex than the joints in your knuckles. And if it is an uncomfortable urge to do this, then you have a functional problem in your back that requires a functional intervention.
The issue here is that you are trying to self-correct a problem in your spine that you will never be able to correct on your own. You can’t move your own L5 if your L3 is unstable. Every time you pop your own back, your unstable L3 is learning to move too much and your L5 is just deteriorating more and more. These joints need good movement to survive, and L5 isn’t getting the attention that it needs.
So, no. We don’t recommend popping your own back if you have that uncomfortable urge to do so. We recommend that you get professional help from the experts in the care of your spine, and more importantly, from the doctors who know how to target your tender and dysfunctional areas with a specific adjustment to the way it moves and thrives.