This is a question I am frequently asked by people of all age groups. I think partially it comes from the misconception that popping your fingers will give you arthritis. So I will give you some insight on what happens when you pop your fingers and why some folks do it.
We use our hands constantly throughout the day. I remember in school as a child getting hand cramps from writing cursive with a pen for an extended period of time. I’m sure many can relate to this experience as well as the relief you felt when you stopped, put down the pen and massaged you now temporarily crippled hand. You may have even mashed your fingers down with the opposite hand and felt the sweet release of all that tension with the loud cracking sound of your knuckles.
So what happened there? Why did that feel so good? The answer is motion. Our joints were designed to have certain motions that they can perform. When we overwork ourselves the muscles get tense and the joint motion decreases. This is why you feel stiffness or even pain. So when you stetch the joint capsule enough gas bubbles quickly form in the fluid in the joint space causing a cracking sound. All joints in the body have 2 main types of nerve fibers, those that detect pain and those that detect motion. Both can not function at the same time so stimulating one will shut off the other. So by activating the motor fibers the pain sensors shut down and you feel better. At least temporarily you will.
Why then do I tell people to avoid popping their joints? The main reason is the incorrect manner in which the adjustment is done. By mashing your fingers down like that you compress the joint space rather than opening it. Also when this is performed often scar tissue will eventually build up and the ligaments and joint capsule will become lax. This can lead to some joint inflammation or arthritis.
So what then about my neck or back? These joints are much more sensitive as they house the spinal cord and are surrounded by important vascular structures. So I never recommend anyone “Self Adjust”. However, it is not the end of the world if you turn in a yoga pose, while stretching or when backing out of the drive way and you get a little pop. As long as it is not painful. This is usually a good indication that it’s time to pay a visit to your chiropractor. So if you continually notice that you feel like you need to crack your neck or that it happens on its own I highly recommend coming in for an adjustment. You should notice a decrease in tension and better range of motion afterwards.