One of the questions I frequently ask my patients is whether or not they self adjust their spines. Self adjusting refers to cracking or popping your own joints by twisting and rotating your spine. Many patients answer yes to this question, and often say it is something they are unconsciously doing. Most people find temporary symptomatic relief when they self adjust their own necks or low backs, but what are some of the long term orthopedic consequences of self adjusting your spine?
What is self adjusting?
Self adjusting of the spine is when an individual twists or rotates their spine to a sufficient degree some of the joints in the area pop or what chiropractors refer to as ‘cavitate’. The ‘cavitation’ is essentially noise made by small bubbles popping within the synovial fluid of your joints and is completely safe. Individuals who self adjust may experience temporary relief with self adjusting because the mechanical stimulation of the joint popped momentarily blocks pain, tension, and tightness signals being sent to the brain. Muscles around the joint will temporarily relax as well. These all sound like positive outcomes, however, they are only temporary and typically last 5 to 10 minutes. The long term orthopedic consequences of self adjusting last much longer and are more damaging to your spinal health.
What is the problem with self adjusting?
The problem with self adjusting is when an individual adjusts their own spine, they lack the specificity to adjust the joints actually needing to be adjusted. Chiropractors are specifically trained to feel or ‘motion palpate’ joints and assess their ability to move in the directions they are designed to. Once a chiropractor identifies a joint is not moving properly or ‘restricted’, the chiropractor applies a high velocity low amplitude (HVLA) thrust to the specific joint in the direction it is not moving. Learning the skills of motion palpation and adjusting take years to master and should only be performed by trained professionals.
You are not adjusting the joints needing it the most when you self adjust. In fact, the joints popping are likely ones already moving too much! We call joints moving too much ‘hypermobile joints’ and these joints lack control of movement and muscular stability. Chiropractors identify ‘hypomobile joints’ or joints not moving enough, and adjust these joints to restore normal movement. The problem with adjusting the hypermobile joints with self adjustments is when you pop these joints you make them more hypermobile. Muscles surrounding a hypermobile joint have to work harder to stabilize the joint, and patterns of muscular pain, tension and tightness often arise. Additionally, adjusting hypermobile joints will make any adjacent hypomobile joints even more restricted. Over time, self adjusting will cause severe imbalances in the spine and decrease the spine’s ability to withstand the compressive forces of life and sport. The result is more serious conditions such as disc herniation, nerve compression, and severe instability among other serious spinal pathologies. Repetitive self adjustments in the neck can lead to chronic tension type headaches and migraines. In summary, adjusting your own spine will make the hypermobile or unstable joints move even more, and it will cause the hypomobile or restricted joints to be even tighter.
What should I do instead?
If there is an area of your spine feeling like it constantly needs to be adjusted, I would recommend consulting with a chiropractor trained in motion palpation and functional movement assessment. This individual can determine which areas of your spine need to be adjusted, and which areas need to be stabilized. In general, hypermobile joints are moving too much and need to be stabilized with a functional exercise focused on improving muscular control around the joint. Hypomobile joints need to be adjusted by a chiropractor in the specific direction of movement they are lacking. So remember, please think twice before the next time you are about to self adjust your neck or low back!
Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.