In this age of YouTube videos, it seems everything can be learned by amateurs. If you’ve seen enough “Holmes on Homes” you’ll know that some things are best left to the professionals. (Mike Holmes is a professional contractor and in this reality show he corrects disaster renovations done by Do-It-Yourself homeowners. Even when it comes to health care, a survey of North Americans showed their number one source of health information comes from magazines like Chatelaine and Men’s Health. Titles such as “Get Rid of Belly Fat in 10 Minutes a Day” or “8 Simple Ways to ______” splash on the front covers. Inside, ads abound for miracle cures and prescription medication. Magazine articles can never replace the wide-based knowledge of professionals in their respective fields, just as this article is a snippet of the information I have to share about this topic.
It starts so innocently. As a kid, you see someone cracking their finger knuckles and it looks strange. You try it and it feels funny, even a little neat. Some get hooked on it and do it repeatedly, even unconsciously. Then you find it may be possible to crack other joints, like your feet, wrists, ankles, elbow or knees. It’s so satisfying to hear the “pop”. Some go on to release these “audibles” in their low back, sternum and even the neck. The problem is that the more you “pop” your joints, the more you feel the need to do it. Why? When you purposely “pop” your joints repeatedly, you are damaging stabilizing ligaments, making the joint unstable. The “popping” of a joint in a region causes the release of feel-good endorphins which can temporarily mask the pain of the misaligned joint, whether that joint position has been corrected or not.
The proper term for “cracking” your own joints is called a “manipulation”. The point of manipulation is to move joints, decrease pain and release endorphins. There are many people who manipulate joints, with varying degrees of training or expertise, including massage therapists, physiotherapists, Kung Fu instructors, coaches, friends and your average Joe.
What’s the worst case scenario from manipulations gone wrong or over-manipulating joints? If it’s over-manipulating the finger or knuckles, over time, scar tissue builds up and you’ll develop chronic arthritis and arthritic pain in the fingers. In the ankles and knees, the joints will be so loose that it will be easy to lose your balance, on top of arthritis. In the lower spine, the instability will make you more prone to disc herniations and nerve damage, including sciatica. In the neck, blood vessels that bring blood to the brain (vertebral arteries) can get damaged as well. Micro traumas to the vertebral arteries will then need to be patched up with blood clots, which, if dislodged, can travel to the brain, block circulation to that area, and cause a stroke. Your risk of stroke is compounded if you have circulation issues, take certain medications (including aspirin, birth control pill and many others), smoke, and have excess or chronic stress.
How is corrective chiropractic care different from manipulations? With corrective chiropractic care, the goal is to restore proper alignment, restore stability to the joint area, restore normal joint function and optimize nerve communication. Chiropractors evaluate the affected area closely to determine which particular joints need help, and in which way, to return them to proper alignment. Chiropractors also look at the whole body to determine if the painful area is the primary site of injury, or secondary to another, possibly bigger issue. With a detailed case history, the chiropractor can determine if the problem is new or chronic, simple or complex, and resolvable or not, plus offer a realistic program of care to bring true resolution as opposed to temporary relief. Chiropractors who do tonal-type adjustments and soft-tissue work will also work to bring stability to the hypermobile joints. Stretches and strengthening exercises don’t begin until the pain is reduced and initial stability is achieved.
As you can imagine, the process of restoring stability takes time. It cannot be done in an adjustment or two (or three or seven). It involves engaging the muscles and ligaments to hold the joints in the proper position, at rest, during regular daily activity, and during periods of higher physical, emotional or chemical stress. It takes muscles a bare minimum of 2 to 3 weeks to maintain a new tone or length, and more realistically 6 to 12 weeks to fully change and stabilize. Ligaments take a bare minimum of 6 weeks to change, but more realistically 12 to 20 weeks to get strong in a new position. The time it takes to “set” or stabilize depends on many factors, including how badly the soft tissue has been injured, the chronicity of the problem, the age of the patient, the quality of the patient’s nutrition, the physical demands of the patient’s lifestyle (including repetitive stress), fitness level, if the underlying problem is being addressed (which could be a different area of the body entirely, or emotion based, or due to chemical toxicity), and if there any new or ongoing injuries or stresses needing immediate attention.
An intense focus on healing is needed at the beginning for significant improvements, establishing good habits and long-term resilience. Often, this means getting adjusted 3 times a week while unstable. In a healthy adult with a mild primary musculoskeletal issue, it can take 12 weeks to be decently stable and generally pain free. If you are badly injured, weak, sickly, have a physically demanding job or sport, or are stressed out, the process can take longer. If you’ve been in the habit of cracking your own joints to the point that they no longer “pop”, then you’ve severely undermined the stability of those joints and the healing process will take even longer.
The difference between short term, acute care and corrective chiropractic care is like cramming last-minute for a test versus true learning over time. When you cram, you’re memorizing key words and fast facts for short term recall. With true learning, you’re gaining a deeper understanding and are able to apply this knowledge to different scenarios and can recall this information even years later. Acute care only may reduce pain in the present time, but the underlying problem so that you not only get relief from the pain, but experience better strength, resilience and health in the future. It requires more effort, time and money, but is definitely worth it. If you’re looking for corrective chiropractic care for optimal health, contact us for a free consultation! 604.566.9088.
Do you know someone who cracks their neck? If so, tell them to stop.
If they say “I can’t help it. It hurts if I don’t do it” then tell them,
“Go see my chiropractor. She’ll take care of you so the pain won’t keep coming back!”