Is the TikTok ‘Back Crack Challenge’ Safe For Your Spine?
Can the #backcrackchallenge hurt you?
TikTok challenges usually take the form of teenagers being idiots for viral fame and attention. Like eating a Tide pod. Or the #peeyourpantschallenge (don’t worry, I don’t get it either). But they’ve recently expanded into questionable health remedies. Case in point: TikTok’s latest viral challenge involves different maneuvers to crack your back, and while some users swear by the challenge’s pain-relieving potential, you should probably think twice before you try this one.
Variants of the back cracking challenge have existed on TikTok since 2020. However, recently two specific forms of the trend – one involving a “backpack” maneuver and the other a “kneeling twist“ – have blown up on the platform. Of course, the videos are all accompanied by loud, impressive-sounding spinal cavitations (aka cracks).
Some TikTokers who try the back cracking challenge report that doing so has miraculously cured them of back pain.
“I’ve had severe pain for the last 12 hours and it’s GONE! If your back hurts, please try this!”
So what is it? Here’s what the “backpack” version of the #backcrackchallenge looks like:
So what’s happening?
The medical term for what’s going on here is long-axis thoracic distraction. Performing these manipulation moves stretch open the facet joints where your vertebra meet in the back of your spine.
If you’re feeling the need to crack your back, it’s usually due to abnormal motion (or misalignment) of these spinal facet joints. To make things worse, surrounding muscles tend to tighten around these joints when they’re stuck, increasing the feeling of stiffness in the region.
These facet joints are surrounded by a squishy capsule made of ligaments, and they produce a fluid called synovial fluid. Synovial fluid lubricates the joint (for movement) and nourishes it. When a facet joint is gapped, or stretched open, the negative pressure produced causes nitrogen gas to momentarily come out of solution. The resulting cracking, popping, and snapping sounds are called a cavitation.
Here’s what it looks like on an ultrasound when you crack a knuckle:
See the bright area that appears when the joint is tractioned apart? That’s nitrogen gas bubbles forming and what causes the popping sound.
Why does it feel good?
First of all, movement in general will help reduce joint pain. It’s a phenomenon called gate control, in which non-painful signals (eg. moving, stretching, or rubbing) close the “gates” to painful input and keep it from reaching your brain. Simply moving the part of your back that’s hurting can be enough to block pain signals; providing temporary relief.
Cracking your back also causes endorphins to be released around the joints that were gapped open. Endorphins are chemicals produced by the pituitary gland that are meant to manage pain in your body, and they can make you feel super satisfied when you crack a joint.
This endorphin release is a big reason why 45% of people say they habitually crack at least one of the joints in their body on a daily basis.
But there’s also a psychological component. A 2011 study suggests that most people associate the sound of cracking your back with a positive feeling of relief. This is true even if nothing actually changed in the positioning or motion of the joint — the placebo effect at its finest.
Is it safe?
Of course, not everything that feels good is actually good for us. And while the back crack challenge isn’t quite as dangerous as, say, a #spinalfusionsurgerychallenge (thankfully not a real thing), it’s not without risk.
First of all, if you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s a real risk of posterior shoulder dislocation or rib injury with the moves seen above. It’s also possible to cause trauma to nerves where they exit your spinal column. And a pinched or inflamed nerve can hurt. A lot.
But the bigger concern here is not the cracking itself, but the stress that you’re putting on the ligaments, tendons and other soft tissues that hold your joints in position. These structures can wear out over time if they’re being frequently over-stretched. There’s a huge difference between just indiscriminately cracking your back and a chiropractor correcting the alignment and motion of a specific joint.
That’s why, even though you might get some degree of short-term relief from the #backcrackchallenge, you’ll find that it doesn’t last. Instead, you may actually find yourself needing to perform these maneuvers more and more often. Like a rubber band, if you stretch your ligaments too much by over-manipulating your spine, they’ll eventually elongate and deform, losing the ability to provide the stability your joints need to maintain proper alignment. This is called chronic hypermobility, and unfortunately it’s something I see way too often.
If you’re a patient at Ascent Chiropractic, you may have heard me refer to hypermobility as joint “sloppiness”, and it can actually make you prone to early degenerative joint disease, arthritis, and disk problems when it occurs in the spine. It’s essential that correcting a joint’s function is done without causing even more ligament laxity and instability, making things even worse down the road. It’s a huge factor in why we approach fixing back pain and stiffness the way we do at Ascent Chiropractic.
The Bottom Line
Most of the time, when a patient tells me that they’ve been cracking their own back, it’s easy to see that whatever they’re doing isn’t working. In fact, it’s often making things worse by causing hypermobility.
So if you’re feeling the need to do the #backcrackchallenge, it’s usually because your body is aware that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed – and that’s something best left to a professional to diagnose and correct. Need a Brookfield chiropractor? If you’re reading this, you probably already know that the results we get at Ascent Chiropractic are second to none. To make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic, call 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.