This is a common question that every chiropractor will be asked at some point. Often times, it is the first question I get when I introduce myself as a chiropractor to a new acquaintance. A lot of people “crack” their knuckles (or necks, ankles, toes, etc.) and apparently many of them had mothers who chastised them for it, saying it would lead to arthritis.
The simple answer is no, self-adjusting will not lead to arthritis. It has been well studied and a link between the two has never been found. Arthritis is caused by several other factors, such as genetics, lifestyle, injuries, and diet, but not by cracking your knuckles. But arthritis aside, is it bad to self-adjust? There are some risks you may want to consider.
First of all, any time you “crack” a joint, you are gapping the joint and stretching the surrounding ligaments. If done several times per day, you may end up creating some ligamentous laxity and joint instability.
Second, if you are self-adjusting your spine, you may not be adjusting the correct segments. It is very difficult to isolate the joint that actually needs to be adjusted. Most likely, you are “cracking” the joints above and below the segment that is restricted. Chiropractors spend hundreds of hours learning how to isolate and adjust restricted joint segments. Even if you know how to do it, it is almost impossible to do on yourself. This is why chiropractors still need to go see their chiropractors!
Finally, there are some very small but potentially serious risks to manipulating your own neck. In very rare cases (less than one in 3 million), cervical manipulation can cause a tear in the vertebrobasilar artery which runs up the neck, leading to a stroke. Certain positions, such as extreme extension and rotation of the neck, put you at higher risk for a stroke. A chiropractor is trained how to adjust the neck safely with less extension and rotation. I cringe when I see people self-adjust their necks by tilting their heads back and using their hands on the chin and back of the head to twist. This is not a good idea.
While some chiropractors are adamantly opposed to self-adjusting, I think it is not such a big deal as long as it is not being done constantly and you are still getting regular adjustments by your chiropractor. As for the neck, if you are just stretching your neck to the side and it makes a popping noise, that is fine. I don’t recommend using your hands to force the neck to pop. That is best left to the professionals!