Answers to Questions about Chiropractic:
Why Does Popping My Back Make Me Feel Better?

Samuel Homola, D.C.

Question

My father used to go to a chiropractor. My back didn't hurt, but I started going to one thinking that the treatment would make me "healthier." I no longer believe that spinal adjustments will improve my health, but now, years later, when I get stressed and my back muscles get tight, my husband gives me temporary relief by popping my back.

Why does popping my back make me feel better? Could the early chiropractic care and self-popping of my neck and back make me more prone to a need to be popped?

Answer

As you have concluded, popping your neck and back will have no effect on your general health. When your muscles are tight and your spine is stiff, popping your back may provide relief by temporarily relaxing muscles and improving range of motion. The popping sound you hear is caused by slight separation of joint surfaces, but it does not mean that your vertebrae are out of place.

A normal joint can be popped by moving the joint a little beyond its normal range of movement into its "paraphysiologic space" to produce "cavitation." While this is normally harmless, excessive popping might create a joint irritation that produces a sensation that the back needs to be popped again and again. Persons who believe that vertebrae pop because they are out of place may become psychologically addicted to manipulation and believe that the popping means that their vertebrae are being realigned.

Once the vertebrae have popped, they will not pop again for 20 or 30 minutes, after the joint surfaces have had a chance to settle back together. Without a specific mechanical problem, it is not necessary to undergo repeated spinal manipulation to pop the vertebrae. It is never necessary to have "spinal adjustments" to restore or maintain health.

While it might be okay for your husband to pop your back occasionally if it relieves your tension and does not cause pain, it should not be done often. You should refrain from popping your neck; and you should not allow your husband to pop your neck.

It might be a good idea to try exercising to relieve your tension and loosen your joints. Then, if you still feel that your back needs to be popped, have it done only occasionally. Do not let joint popping become a habit.

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Dr. Homola is a second-generation chiropractor who has dedicated himself to defining the proper limits on chiropractic and to educating consumers and professionals about the field. His 1963 book Bonesetting, Chiropractic, and Cultism supported the appropriate use of spinal manipulation but renounced chiropractic dogma. His 1999 book Inside Chiropractic: A Patient's Guide provides an incisive look at chiropractic's history, benefits, and shortcomings. Now retired after 43 years of practice, he lives in Panama City, Florida.

This page was posted on November 3, 2004.