Neck Crepitus: Popping, Cracking, and Grinding

2022-06-03 23:15:38 By : Ms. Anna Dai

Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, is a medical writer and a physical therapist at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey.

Jason DelCollo, DO, is board-certified in family medicine and on the faculty of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Angela Underwood's extensive local, state, and federal healthcare and environmental news coverage includes 911 first-responder compensation policy to the Ciba-Geigy water contamination case in Toms River, NJ. Her additional health-related coverage includes death and dying, skin care, and autism spectrum disorder.

Neck crepitus is cracking, popping, and grinding sounds in your neck. They can be caused by tightness and stiffness, poor posture, or arthritis.

Neck crepitus isn't generally a cause for concern. But chronic, repetitive, or painful cracking could point to a more serious problem.

This article will walk you through what crepitus is, what causes neck crepitus, when to see a healthcare provider, and how it's diagnosed and treated.

Crepitus is cracking, popping, and grinding sounds in your joints. You may hear and feel it when you move.

Grinding sounds and sensations are often tied to stiff joints with cartilage damage.

Cartilage in joints helps your bones glide smoothly over each other. But cartilage can be damaged or worn away. Then, bones grind against each other. Cracking and popping sounds are often the result of air bubbles. They form in empty spots within the joints. That's called cavitation . It's often thought to be thought that the sound came from popping the bubbles. Research published in 2015 suggests it may actually be from the bubbles forming.

When you suddenly force the joint to move a certain way, different parts of it separate briefly. That opens up cavities where the bubbles can form.

Either way, you get a popping sound from quick movements. That can be cracking your knuckles or bending or twisting your neck.

Once you pop a joint, it won't pop again until the pressure has time to build up. That often takes about 20 minutes.

Grinding in joints may be from cartilage wearing away. That makes bones rub against each other when you move.

Popping and cracking are related to gas bubbles that form in small cavities inside the joints.

Neck crepitus occurs with joint damage, stiffness, or arthritis of the cervical (neck) vertebrae. Neck arthritis (cervical spondylosis ) comes from cartilage degrading over time.

Loss of cartilage means cervical vertebrae can't glide smoothly over each other. So when you move, it causes grinding.

Neck stiffness can also be due to injury. Auto accidents and whiplash are common causes, but anything that causes neck trauma can lead to inflammation and tight muscles and connective tissues.

Excessive neck cracking, popping, or grinding may indicate a serious problem. That includes instability of the cervical spine.

See a healthcare provider if you have:

Joint cavitations and cracking are more likely in joints with more resistance in surrounding tissues. Those tissues include:

Poor posture can also cause neck stiffness. That can limit movement and cause neck crepitus.

Neck crepitus is caused by joint damage or arthritis in the neck joints. It's more common in joints with high resistance from soft tissues. Poor posture is also a cause.

Neck crepitus and its causes may be diagnosed by your regular healthcare provider, an orthopedic doctor, a physical therapist, or a chiropractor.

A diagnosis of neck crepitus is based on:

Your healthcare provider will listen for neck crepitus with certain movements. They'll ask you to make some of these movements.

They may order imaging if your neck crepitus is chronic, repetitive, or painful. These may include X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Neck crepitus most often comes from a stiff neck. So treatment is generally aimed at restoring the range of motion and mobility of your cervical spine.

The first treatments are often:

If you have significant tightness, a physical therapist may help. They can help you get things moving better.

In rare cases where the cervical spine is unstable, spinal fusion surgery is an option.

Neck crepitus comes from worn-away cartilage or gas bubbles in small cavities inside your joints. Poor posture, injury, or arthritis may also cause it.

Diagnosis is based on symptoms, a physical exam, and sometimes, imaging. Treatments include heat, stretching and strengthening, and improving posture. Surgery may be needed in rare cases.

If your neck crepitus isn't painful, it may be tempting to just ignore it. It's better to see your healthcare provider, though.

Something may be going on inside your joint that'll get worse over time. Getting a quick diagnosis and the right treatments can keep that from happening.

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Library of Congress. What causes the noise when you crack a joint?

Kawchuk GN, Fryer J, Jaremko JL, Zeng H, Rowe L, Thompson R. Real-time visualization of joint cavitation. PLoS One. 2015;10(4):e0119470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119470

American Academy of Orthapaedic Surgeons. Cervical Spondylosis (Arthritis of the Neck).

Mahmoud NF, Hassan KA, Abdelmajeed SF, Moustafa IM, Silva AG. The relationship between forward head posture and neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2019;12(4):562-577. doi. 10.1007/s12178-019-09594-y

Kawchuk GN, Fryer J, Jaremko JL, Zeng H, Rowe L, Thompson R. Real-time visualization of joint cavitation. PLoS One. 2015 Apr 15;10(4):e0119470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119470

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