We have all done it. We pull the steering wheel with our left hand, press off the passenger seat with the right and twist… twist…. twist until pop. Sweet sweet release in the low back. The action itself may not be bad. I’ve heard it argued both ways: 1) you will die a slow and painful death by degenerating the joint, and 2) the contrary being that it’s probably not a big deal as long as it’s not super habitual, which might result in some damage to the joint capsule.
What happens when you “pop” a joint?
The gist of what my simple brain can understand is this
- Your joint has a capsule full of fluid and gas.
- When you pop a joint you are releasing the gas, which is the audible noise you hear.
- Also during the popping you have a release of endorphins that provides a near instant mechanism for localized pain relief —part of the reason popping your back feels so good.
- The other reason it feels good is that it’s believed the pop stimulates the golgi tendon (which is a nerve bundle that helps regulate the tension of a muscle) and the nearby muscles relax a little.
So what’s the big deal?
Studies on habitual joint popping which focus on degeneration on the joint don’t outright prove its a a problem. Here’s my real issue with it: Gray Cook, a really smart physical therapist and strength coach, drives home the point time and time again that if you do something to change position and movement you have to challenge it so the body will learn to be stable in new positions and ranges of motion. It’s like hitting save on the word document. If you make adjustments or change to your body your next position and the load on that position are really important. As mentioned above, when you do the twisty back cracky thing you stimulate the golgi tendon and trigger a release in muscle tension which opens up some new range of motion.
Sooooo…. what is your next position? Probably more sitting in the car hanging the end ranges of your soft tissues and bony structure in a crappy position.
What is your low back not doing while sitting in a squad car in uniform? Stabilizing in good position.
What are you reinforcing?
Absolute best case scenario that I can see (Which by the way I don’t think is the case); you’re doing nothing. You’re just doing it again in every 20 minutes because it does feel good and you’re chasing the high (You freaking junkie).
More than likely You pop your back, and you prime the region for input for input and learning. Now you’re further normalizing sitting in the car in a crappy position.
Furthermore, while we know positional load is important for shaping our bodies, we also know that repetition is a good teacher as well. If you’re cracking your back in your car all the time you’ll probably gain some rotational capacity. This might at first glance seem okay until you consider that you can’t do this well both ways. Next thing you know you’re making confessions to your shift partner like Derek Zoolander and you have asymmetrical rotation that happens to be unstable which can be a powerful combination for injury.
I know I’m getting long winded here but let me add in one more knowledge bomb from Gray from his thinking on the joint by joint approach
The lumbar and sacral region has a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of stability and motor control. This region sits at the crossroads of mechanical stress, and lack of motor control is often replaced with generalized stiffness as a survival strategy.
Do you see where I’m going here? There’s a pretty good chance you’re setting up for catastrophe. While the joint popping itself might not be so bad, it’s easy to see how you were setup for that back injury you got scrapping with the drunk on the side of the road. The good news is that your body is pretty good at trying to avoid catastrophic injury. If you’re lucky you end up with a little back tweak while picking your kid up that only puts your back on lock down for a few days so you learn to make a better decision. By the way, when it’s half healed you know what feels really good? Doing the twisty back cracky thing in the car.
While we’re on this path of thinking.
A chiropractor or physical therapist they should be using the same principle of reinforcing change. If they don’t it’s kind of like getting home from the grocery store and pitching half of your groceries immediately into the garbage. Have you ever gotten adjusted and feel great until you get back in the car and drive home? All of a sudden it’s not as quite as good as when you left the office or even like you never went? … Weird (This is also due in part to the endorphins wearing off). A lot of practitioners skip this step because let’s face it time is money and that back cracking degree wasn’t free. The dirty little secret that they don’t tell prospective practitioners before they take out student loans is that paying them off with insurance company’s reimbursement rates isn’t as easy as they think. Don’t get me wrong they can still make positive improvement with adjustments but the guys that take the extra step seem to see me fewer times for whatever issue I have.
It turns out that a good physical therapy or chiropractic session might look something like a solid yoga session.
First you make a change (stretching). Then you challenge position within the new range of motion (static and balancing postures). Rinse and repeat. Finish up by taking a little time with deep diaphragmatic breathing in a good posture. Usually standing tall (mountain pose /Tadasana) lying down (corpse pose /Savasana) or some variation of sitting cross-legged (easy pose /sukhasana or lotus Padmasana).
Note: This isn’t necessary a universal principal in all yoga practices, but I see it a lot. I really don’t think the similarities are a fluke.
If you like your back cracking professional but they skip this step, that’s fine. Just be aware of the issue and take some ownership of your body. It’s not rocket surgery. Get yourself into a good position, and find a way to challenge it. A good hard style plank, a Cook hip lift or two and maybe loaded carry will work great. At a minimum practice some neutral spine bracing and diaphragmatic breathing while you walk around for a few minutes. Whatever you do don’t just go directly to your car and sit in a compromised position for the next half hour while you drive home. If you can walk to and from your appointment do that too. You can do great things with a little bit of knowledge and a pinch of effort.
That’s just my basic understanding. It’s also easy to go much more in depth with these ideas and build some really good ways to hit save on your movement practice. Gray Cook is better at that than me so I’ll let his video give you a good example.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a blog post about not cracking your back in the squad car then go sit in a squad car and not crack your back? Probably about as hard as reading the same post and not go crack your back in the squad car. As a way to combat the urge try this for a nifty low back massage from the inside out.
NOTE: Don’t do this if you have a known hart condition.
- Sit as upright as you can. (Think sit tall).
- Exhale all the air that you can. When you think your out start making the “SSS” sound to get the last little bit out. You should feel your abs get tight your rib cage tilt down during this which helps align your diaphragm and pelvic bowl.
- Keep your belly tight and breath in and out into your gut. Try to keep your belly firm and in place so your breath pushes into your low back.
- Just hang out and try this for a few minutes.
AAAAANNNNNDDDD you’re welcome. Ironically enough the first time I did this I got an amazing clunk deep in my sacraliliac joint. It wasn’t the same as the air bubble pop. It was more like something slipping back into place and my hips felt great the rest of the night. If you get that you’re double welcome.