Is Neck Crepitus Something to Worry About?

Neck crepitus is a grinding sound your neck makes. It’s usually not something to worry about, but here’s what it means.

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Your body is essentially one big sound system that generates many interesting noises. When you’re hungry, your stomach rumbles. After a satisfying meal, you might emit a hearty belch. You yawn when you’re sleepy, and you might snore when catching some well-deserved rest.

Woman with neck crepitusWhat's that snap-crackle-popping sound coming from your neck?

However, you weren’t expecting your neck to join the show. You’ve recently noticed some strange neck cracking or neck popping sounds during normal neck movements. This unusual sensation has a name: neck crepitus. Learn about some possible causes and when to bring this issue to your doctor’s attention.

What is Crepitus?

The word “crepitus” (or crepitation) is a scientific term describing the sound effects from joint movements. Popping, cracking, snapping, or even grinding noises can occur along with the joint motion.

Crepitus can occur in any moveable joint in your body. Neck crepitus is a rather common occurrence, and many people have experienced it. For example, maybe you have heard a neck cracking or neck popping sound when you look over your shoulder. This is an example of neck crepitus.

Why Is the Neck So Susceptible to Crepitus? 

Timothy O’Connor, MD, Director of Minimally Invasive and Robotic Spine Surgery at Baptist Health's Marcus Neuroscience Institute, says it relates to the neck’s makeup. He details the neck’s supporting structures in easy-to-understand terms.

Dr. O’Connor explains that the cervical spine consist of seven segments. Each segment has multiple joints that interact with the segments above and below it. The cervical spine is a flexible system that’s able to protect neurologic structures while maintaining stability of the head and neck. 

With the neck’s inherent flexibility, there are multiple joints at each level that can wear down over time. This can lead to arthritis and resulting neck crepitus.

Other Symptoms That May Appear with Neck Crepitus

Dr. O’Connor also notes that neck crepitus can occur without other symptoms. However, it can also be associated with other more serious symptoms, such as: 

  • Neck pain
  • Instability
  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Diminished manual dexterity
  • Difficulty walking

Neck Crepitus Evolution

Although you can experience neck crepitus at any age, the chances of an occurrence increase as you get older. Some people may have neck crepitus symptoms more often than others.

For example, you might only notice these neck cracking or neck popping sounds several times each month. However, someone else may have these noisy movements daily or even multiple times a day.

Adding another piece to the puzzle, neck crepitus occurrences can increase or decrease in frequency. You might regularly have symptoms for several days before the sensations stop entirely for a while.

What are Some Possible Causes of Neck Crepitus?

Neck crepitus has several potential causes. Sometimes, multiple factors can combine to create these unusual sensations. 

Articular Pressure Variations

Very small gas bubbles can form within your synovial joints (joints, including facet joints, that have a lubricating lining and fluid). When the bubbles collapse, they are released, which creates cracking noises in your joints. In this case, these cracking sounds can happen during your neck’s natural movements. They can also occur while a chiropractor or physical therapist is performing spinal manipulations.

Tendon or Ligament Motion 

Sometimes, a moving tendon (tissue that connects muscles to bones) or ligament (tissue that connects bones to each other) can make a cracking noise as it slides around a bone and/or over another tendon or ligament. The cracking sound can result from excessively tight tissues and muscles, whether due to age or deconditioning.   

Bone-on-Bone Grinding 

Osteoarthritis (called spondylosis in the spine) can cause the facet joints that connect your vertebrae to degenerate. As a result, the protective cartilage becomes worn down, and the adjacent vertebral bones begin to rub against each other. This often produces a grinding noise. The grinding can also result from disc degeneration, reducing the cushion between two vertebrae.

Neck Crepitus vs Neck Cracking 

So, what’s the difference between neck crepitus and cracking neck sounds?  Dr. O’Connor explains that both terms relate to the sensation of movement.

First, crepitus is the sensation of noise underlying movement. Cracking is a similar phenomenon experienced with movement of a joint. Both occurrences are usually associated with the release of nitrogen bubbles underlying a joint.

As a side note, cracking your back can produce the same sound. You have probably heard this noise during a good all-over stretch after sitting for an extended period.

Is Neck Crepitus Ever Serious?  

If neck crepitus occurs without other symptoms, Dr. O’Connor says it’s usually not a serious issue. When neck crepitus accompanies certain other symptoms, however, you should alert your physician. 

Note symptoms such as neck pain, weakness, or sensory changes. If you have pain radiating down the arm, or you have difficulty completing fine motor tasks such as buttoning a shirt or writing your name, you should consult your doctor. These symptoms can potentially be caused by spinal cord or nerve root compression.

When You Should Consult Your Physician  

Sometimes, neck crepitus can appear with another health-related occurrence. For example, maybe you noticed these neck sounds several weeks after cervical spine surgery. Your spinal surgeon can determine if the two incidents are related.

In a similar vein, maybe you recently experienced a fall or were involved in a car accident. If your neck crepitus showed up shortly afterward, the two incidents could be related. Make your physician aware of this new development.

Finally, if neck crepitus occurs almost every time you move a certain joint, you may have less-than-ideal joint function. If you experience pain during the joint movement, a joint function issue is more likely.

Can Neck Crepitus be Treated or Prevented?

Yes, there are several types of treatment for neck crepitus. Dr. O’Connor recommends beginning with conservative treatment methods such as physical therapy and pain management. However, this assumes there is no evidence of damage to the spinal cord or nerve roots. 

If imaging results show signs of compression of the spinal cord or nerves, treatment would include removing the pressure off the neural structures and stabilization of the spine. Cervical traction is another potential form of treatment.

Resolving Your Neck Crepitus Concerns

Neck crepitus is a fairly common occurrence, and it is often harmless when not accompanied by other symptoms. With that said, however, you might be understandably concerned about the strange neck cracking or neck popping noises. 

To get to the bottom of the issue, and give yourself some much-deserved peace of mind, ask your physician to get on the case. They’ll do some high-level detective work and solve the mystery once and for all.

Updated on: 09/28/21
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Timothy O'Connor, MD
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