Today's topic is about neck noises. I have received a number of inquiries about sounds emanating from the neck while turning the head from side to side. Most people want to know:
1. What is the noise from?
2. Do I need to be concerned about it?
3. Is there anything that can be done?
If you have a grinding or a sensation like there is sand in your neck, this is most often from changes in the cartilage which lines the joints (called facet joints). When the cartilage becomes soft it typically also becomes irregular. When you turn your head, the joints travel on a "bumpy road" instead of a smooth one. Hence, you may hear a grinding sound.
A cracking sound which occurs once as you turn your head but then is not reproducible for a period of time is usually from something called cavitation. I wrote an article on this which you can read on our website (Is The Crack In Your Neck Worth It?). When you twist and bend your neck, you stretch the joints. Inside each joint is a liquid called synovial fluid that contains gases like nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. This liquid exerts a certain amount of pressure against the ligaments around the joint (called the joint capsule). The stretching causes the pressure inside the joint to drop. When the pressure drops, the ligament gets sucked into the joint and a bubble of carbon dioxide forms. The formation of the bubble creates a popping sound as it comes out of the synovial fluid (cavitation) and increases the volume of synovial fluid temporarily (by about 15%). The increase in volume pushes the ligament back into place creating another popping sound (these occur so fast you hear only one sound). You cannot repeat the snap, crackle, pop for about twenty minutes or until the bubble dissolves back into the synovial fluid.
The other reasons for a cracking sound, and these typically occur on a repeated basis, include changes in the shape of the joints and changes in the thickness of ligaments. If your joints have extra bone (which forms in response to a loss of intervertebral disc height), then as you move your head the extra bone can cause a "collision" - one part of the joint bumps into another part and creates a cracking sound. In some cases the ligaments which attach to the joints will become thicker (again due to changes in the disc height). Occasionally, as you move your head, the ligament will slip over the edge of the bone and you may hear a snap or a cracking sound.
In terms of what to do, your choices depend on why you have the sound. Generally, I recommend:
- Supplements to help rebuild the joint surfaces (read How To Use Supplements to Rebuild Your Joints).
- Aerobic exercise to improve the distribution of oxygen and transport of needed nutrients.
- Stop all stretching or self-cracking of the neck.
Fred Smith, CEO of Federal Express, once said, "A problem is something you can solve. Otherwise, it's a fact of life." Neck noise can be a problem you can solve. In many cases, you can alter the health of your spine and the noise will dissipate leaving you with much less discomfort and aggravation.
Make today count.
Author. Speaker. Therapist.
P.S. We are so excited to meet the clinicians from all over the country registered to attend our newest professional course in April, The Spine: Diagnosis and Treatment of Lumbar Degenerative Joint and Disc Disease for the PT and ATC. Early registration savings ends on March 28th, so if you are planning on attending, register now. It appears the course will be full soon and trust me you don't want to miss this one.