Here on EmpowHER, we have an ASK section where numerous people have posted concerns about clicking sounds in their necks when they turn their heads.
The clicking sound may or may not have a sudden onset. Many report it does not cause pain but is extremely annoying and worrisome. Some have seen doctors, or had scans or lab work done, without making much headway in finding out what causes their necks to click.
Let’s review a bit of neck anatomy to help visualize what structures located in the neck could be causing the clicking.
The neck has seven cervical vertebral bones, but the top two are special. The top one, called the atlas, lets us nod our heads up and down. The second one, called the axis, allows us to turn our heads from side to side.
Vertebral bones are stacked on top of one another on small joints called the facet joints that enable us to move.
The ends of the joints have a cartilage covering so the bones can slide over each other.
The joints have a capsule filled with synovial fluid to keep it lubricated.
Nerves exit the spine in the spaces between these joints. Discs separate and support the lower five cervical vertebrae.
Muscles run along the spine to support it as well as other muscles, tendons and ligaments that hold your head up over your neck. Some muscles connect to your shoulders and upper back.
All of these structures can contribute to neck cracking and, without knowing the specifics of each person’s situation, these are possible reasons why your neck may be cracking.
Crepitus is a rubbing sound that may indicate cartilage wear that has left bone surfaces rough, so that you hear the bones rub against each other. It can also be due to inflammation.
The main cause of crepitus is osteoarthritis, according to Dr. Michael Vagg, a clinical senior lecturer at Deakin University's School of Medicine in Australia.(2)
Muscle tightness and inflamed tendons can also cause crepitus as they pass over the bone during movement.
1) Anatomy of the Spine. DePuy Synthes Spine.com. Retrieved August 6, 2016.
2) Are noisy joints a sign of arthritis? ABC Health & Wellbeing.net. Retrieved August 6, 2016.
3) Protopapas, MG, Cymet TC. Joint cracking and popping: understanding noises that accompany articular release. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, May 2002, Vol. 102, 283-287.