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Ask a Neurosurgeon: Why does my neck "Pop"???

Bones and joints can make grinding, creaking, clicking, popping and many other noises, which can occur at any age but become more common as we get older. The medical term is crepitus, and there can be several causes.

If you’re just hearing some noise and there’s no pain, swelling or other symptoms, do not be alarmed. However, If you are having other symptoms, you should see Austin Neurosurgeons for a formal evaluation.

Here are some possible reasons for the noise:

The underlying issue with noisy joints may relate to tendons (which connect muscle to bone), ligaments (which connect bones to other bones), or cartilage (the smooth covering over the ends of bones in joints). The knee generally is the noisiest joint, but other joints can also develop sounds, including the hip, shoulder, neck and spine.

- A tendon or ligament may snap over a bony bump.

- A ligament can tighten with movement.

- Air bubbles inside the joint can pop. The synovial fluid between your joints lubricates movement, and when the pressure changes in this fluid, it creates gaseous bubbles. According to a 2015 study, the creation of these bubbles makes a cracking or popping sound.

- Muscle tightness in the neck can cause it to grind with movement.

- Cartilage can wear away, causing rough areas. This is osteoarthritis and it can result in the bones no longer gliding smoothly against each other. As a result, the joint can make a grinding or crunching sound. 

Arthritis of the neck: Cervical osteoarthritis (cervical spondylosis)

Cervical osteoarthritis, or cervical spondylosis, and is a condition where the joints of the neck begin to deteriorate due to the natural wear-and-tear associated with aging. As you age, the discs of the cervical spine lose fluid, become stiff, and start to break down. This can cause neck pain, stiffness, and crepitus due to the grinding of the bones.

Osteoarthritis does not always cause pain and stiffness. However, if your non-painful neck does become noisy, do not be surprised if you eventually do have some symptoms. A study published in Arthritis Care & Research found that more than 75 percent of people who developed knee osteoarthritis reported grating, cracking, or popping sounds in or around their knee joint in the year leading up to developing symptoms.

When does neck cracking and popping need medical attention?

If your crepitus neck is accompanied by any of the following factors, you should seek the advice of your doctor or the specialists at Austin Neurosurgeons as it may be indicative of a more serious issue.

Pain and/or swelling. This may indicate the presence of inflammation and osteoarthritis.

Recent injury. If your crepitus occurs after a recent accident or injury, it may mean that there is damage to the structure of you neck.

Frequent or constant. If the cracking and grinding noise can be recreated every time you move your head/neck, then it may be telling of an issue with joint function.

Recent surgery. After surgery on the cervical spine, crepitus may occur for several weeks after. While these new sounds may not mean anything serious, it is important to inform your surgeon so they can assess your symptoms.

How do I get rid of crepitus neck?

If the sound of grinding is accompanied by pain or swelling, you should see your doctor or the specialists at Austin Neurosurgeons. They may diagnose you with arthritis and prescribe a suitable treatment regimen. If the crepitus is accompanied by stiffness and is due to muscle tension, then sometimes a gentle massage may be enough to ease symptoms. In some cases, a cervical collar or brace may be recommended as a treatment.

While it may sound alarming, crepitus neck on its own is rarely serious. However, if you hear cracking and grinding and feel pain or swelling, or have suffered a recent injury or undergone surgery, the specialists at Austin Neurosurgeons are happy to help!

- Daniel Peterson, MD



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