Here on EmpowHER, we have an ASK section where numerous people have posted concerns about clicking sHere 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.
Osteoarthritis in joints cannot be reversed but one can do gentle exercise to maintain movement.
If you have inflammation of a muscle or tendon from an injury, check with your doctor about taking anti-inflammatory medicine or having physical therapy to maintain strength in the muscle.
Cavitation is the popping or cracking sound of gas being pulled out of the fluid in the capsule that surrounds the joint, after it is stretched by a sudden change in position. We are most familiar with this sound when people crack their knuckles.
Cavitation can be annoying, but is not thought to cause harm to the joint. However, in those who actively try to crack their joints to increase movement, it may increase the laxity of the ligaments that support the joint.(3)
Some people store stress in their stomachs, others in their necks. Stress can lead to muscle spasms that pull on the vertebra in your neck so you are uneven as you turn your head from side to side.
This muscle imbalance could lead to a cracking sensation.
4) Poor posture muscle strain
Many EmpowHER posters indicated that they spend many hours working at a computer screen.
We hold our heads in a more forward position when staring at the screen, and many people have less than the best posture sitting, or sit for too long of a period of time.
Seeking the care of a healthcare provider may help.
If you are concerned about the cracking and/or pain, then see your primary care physician.
Your doctor can decide if you need other testing or can refer you to other doctors such as a rheumatologist or a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor, known as a physiatrist.
A physical therapist can look over your entire body posture and help you with stretching and strengthening.
Let us know how your neck cracking situation progresses.
Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues.
Edited by Jody Smith
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.