The bad news for "self-manipulators." If you are a chronic neck-popper, you are very likely stretching the ligaments which support and stabilize your neck joints. Stretched ligaments result in a condition called hypermobility in which the joints lose their natural springy end play. To someone skilled at feeling joint motion, like a chiropractor, this loss of springiness can be detected. It is sometimes jokingly referred to as “floppy disc syndrome,” although the discs in the neck are not directly affected. As the ligaments become more lax, the small muscles that connect one vertebra to the next become tight. They have to work harder to make up for the loss of stability due to the lax ligaments. This makes your neck feel tight. As the muscle tension builds and your neck becomes more and more uncomfortable, you feel the urge to manipulate your neck. CRACK! The muscles are stretched, they relax, and you feel some relief. Of course, this manipulation also stretched those already loose ligaments, and the vicious cycle starts over again.
Hypermobility can be congenital (i.e., hereditary) or acquired. Teens tend to have hypermobile spinal joints. This is normal and will usually resolve as the skeleton and supporting tissues finish growing. However, if neck cracking becomes a habit, then the problem can continue into adulthood. Clinical evidence suggests that hypermobile spinal joints become arthritic at a faster rate than normal joints. Hypermobility can also result from injuries such as whiplash, or it can be self-inflicted. Some popping in the back or neck occurs spontaneously with movement and may be normal.
Treatment: Chiropractors treat hypermobility with strengthening exercises. If the ligaments are weak and the muscles have to work harder, they will be less tense if they are stronger. Strong muscles don’t have to work as hard as weak muscles, so there is less tension. Hypermobility is also treated with spinal adjustments, a form of manipulation. Although this would seem to be contradictory, sometimes hypermobility can be a compensation for restricted or fixated joints elsewhere in the spine. The adjustments are given only to these joints, not the hypermobile ones.
Of course, the best thing to do is to STOP POPPING YOUR NECK. That’s it. Just don’t do it. Most people who “go cold turkey” will feel worse for a time. But even if no other treatment is given, you will probably feel much better after two or three weeks.