Do you crack your neck? It feels good, doesn’t it? I know, I know. I used to as well. The power to “give yourself an adjustment” and self-treat your own neck combined with that popping sound, it’s so, as my kids would say, satisfying.
But… don’t do it. Why? Here’s the story of when I decided to never voluntarily crack or pop my neck again:
I was only 27, working my first job as a physical therapist at National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington D.C. I was on the specialized neuro floor and it was an intense first year. I was immersed in neuro-rehab– treating people recovering from strokes and reteaching them how to sit upright, stand up, walk, and go up and down stairs. Activities we take for granted. It was physically intense. I often had to lift men twice my weight as I taught them how to transfer from bed to chair and back again.
But I’ll never forget this one patient; we’ll call him Patient Vertigo or V for short. He was a young guy, most of my patients were older. This active-duty military officer was in his late 30’s. He was admitted to the hospital after injuring his neck and a major artery that supplies the area of the brain involved in balance.
I enjoyed treating him because it was a physical break for me, he was able to walk independently without a walker, cane, or any hands-on help, and we had good conversations. But… just walking down the hall was a challenge as he would suddenly and spontaneously fall to the floor. I had to be ready to catch him at a moment’s notice.
We had team meetings about Patient V, as we did for every patient admitted to this specialized ward. I will never forget our initial meeting. We were discussing how he hurt his neck and why he fell to the ground without warning. As the team lead, his neurologist (a medical doctor specializing in the nervous system), opened the discussion with this question:
“Does anyone here crack their neck?”
I sheepishly raised my hand with just a few others in a room of 20-some specialists. He looked me in the eye, likely because I was the treating PT, and said:
“Stop. You know you have a major artery running through your cervical spine [the neck vertebrae]. Over time you risk injuring that artery. That’s similar to what this guy did.”
Patient V had a history of cracking his neck, but the actual injury occurred while he was doing traditional sit-ups–he pulled too hard on his neck and injured the artery. The result was several mini-strokes and persistent vertigo. It was the vertigo that caused the sudden falls.
So please stop cracking your neck. For a few weeks you will feel the need to pop it, but over time that feeling will go away. You can also supplement with other therapeutic exercises that will mobilize the neck safely and effectively. At MtM we teach techniques for proper abdominal work that guide you out of not only using your neck incorrectly during exercise but also train your hand placement to assist your head during the lift portion. Given all the content out there these days for virtual workouts, we are super proud that our expertise translated well. But as the weather breaks and Covid numbers continue to decline, you will see us safely in person more as we adjust the schedule. Follow me on Instagram @drmeganbrown and @mindthemat for updates!
The next time you feel that urge to crack your neck, try these basic range of motion exercises instead:
Cervical Spine Range of Motion
Start all movements with this set up:
Sit on a firm chair with a wide stance.
Breathe in deeply as you lengthen the top of your head to the ceiling, thus elongating your spine.
As you exhale, widen your collar bones.
Turn your head all the way to the right, keeping your nose and chin in alignment (i.e., don’t tilt your head). Repeat on the other side.
Bring one ear over to the same side shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
Inhale, look up, keeping your mouth closed.
Exhale, look down, tucking your chin deep to your neck.
Try these daily!
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Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga was founded in 2008 by Megan Brown, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Polestar Certified Practitioner of Pilates for Rehabilitation and Sara VanderGoot, Nationally Certified Massage Therapist and Registered Yoga Teacher (e-RYT 200, RYT 500). In their private practices as physical therapist and massage therapist respectively Megan and Sara observed that many of their clients were coming in with similar needs: relief for neck and shoulder tension and low back pain as well as a desire for more flexibility in hips and legs, stability in joints, and core strength.
Together Megan and Sara carefully crafted a curriculum of Pilates and yoga classes to address needs for clients who are pregnant, postpartum, have injuries or limitations, who are new to Pilates and yoga, and for those who are advanced students and are looking for an extra challenge.