Headaches and Neck Cracking

Does Neck Cracking Help Headaches?

Headache or neck pain afflicts many people for years. Therefore, people try all sorts of treatments to try to get relief.  Neck cracking, or cervical manipulation, is a treatment option for headaches. But is it the best treatment for you?

Theoretically, you crack your neck to put your spine into alignment to decrease pressure on your neck and joints and muscles that produce your headaches. Research shows that spinal manipulation can help neck pain and headaches. On the other hand, research also indicates that neck cracking can be hazardous for some people. What are the complications that can go along with this treatment?

Vertebral Artery Dissection

Perhaps you will read about one of the worst complications of neck cracking is damage to the neck arteries. Move your neck abruptly and you can put too much stress to the vertebral artery in your neck. The vertebral artery is a very important artery that supplies blood to the brain. If the vertebral artery is damaged by a sudden jerk to the neck, it can tear. This tear of the vertebral artery is a dissection.

Artery dissection does not happen often, but it does happen. Severe symptoms can follow from this injury.

What Happens If I have a Vertebral Artery Dissection?

You could suffer from a stroke. Other symptoms include increased headache and neck pain. Abnormal facial sensations may result. Partial or complete paralysis of an arm leg can occur.  Balance problems could appear and you would develop an unsteady walk.  You might experience nausea and vomiting. You could faint or become dizzy. Death is another possibility.

You may want more information about artery dissection. Check out the article by Thomas, Rivett, Attia and Levi; “Risk Factors and Clinical Presentation of Cervical Arterial Dissection: Preliminary Results of a Prospective Case-Control Study.” Find this article in the July 2015 Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy.

Many activities can produce the mechanical strain to the neck resulting in the artery dissection. If you have a vulnerable vertebral artery, you increase your risk if you bend your neck backwards. In addition, you add to your risk if you turn your neck at the same time.  Athletic activities may position your neck in this extended and turned position. Examples include biking,  reaching for a volleyball, playing tennis, or weight lifting.

If your neck artery system is healthy, you can do all these activities without problems. But if you notice any abnormal sensations, take note!

Paint overhead for long periods and you need to bend your neck backwards. Prolonged backward neck bending can precipitate neck artery problems.  Reach for dishes in your upper cabinet and you automatically tilt your neck backwards.  Drive when you have a damaged vertebral artery and you could stress it when you turn your neck. You likely hunch your mid spine already as you drive, which automatically bends your neck backwards.

You could even suffer from “beauty parlor stroke syndrome.” When you sit in the beauty salon chair with your neck bent backwards over the sink to get your hair shampooed you can cause a stroke in rare instances!

What Does Research Show as Far as Neck Cracking is Concerned?

You will find the research is mixed as to the benefits of cervical manipulation, or neck cracking. Some evidence points to the benefits of neck cracking for headache and neck pain relief. On the other hand, an impressive mound of evidence highlights the risks of neck cracking. Read Chapter 2 in my book “Calming the Headache Storm” to check out a few of these articles.

In my opinion, I think there are far safer methods to achieve the result of decreased headaches and neck pain than neck cracking. Consequently, read this article and realize my perspective is that of not being in favor of the procedure.

It is Pretty Rare to Have a Stroke from Getting My Neck Cracked, Isn’t It?

Strokes rarely occur from neck cracking.  However, does the research literature accurately report the stroke incidence?

In less than a year, I know of five situations of severe reactions from these neck manipulations. A nurse practitioner told me of another nurse practitioner who died from getting her neck cracked. A different nurse practitioner told me of the case of someone who arrived in their office needing treatment for stroke symptoms following a cervical manipulation. Two of my clients informed me of people they were aware of who had strokes after getting their necks cracked.

On a personal level,  I know someone who had vertebral dissection. She had suffered from neck injury from a car accident and among other treatments she received dozens of neck manipulations. The initial neck artery injury healed. However, she needs to be careful to avoid re-injury of her vertebral artery. They told her that her condition was rare, but she says she is not so sure.

Does Stretching My Neck Cause the Same Risk to my Blood Vessels?

No, you have less risk. Gently stretch your neck and you will likely stop before you pull to hard on your neck arteries. You may have a sense of apprehension before you stretch your neck into the danger zone. Consequently, I always recommend you to not cause yourself any pain or distress when you do any exercise.

Rapid neck cracking movement gives you no opportunity to prevent any excessive torque on your neck. Unfortunately, your neck can overload before you have the chance to pull back. You can’t undo a neck cracking!

Stretch your neck in a slower motion. Stop stretching if your neck does not like the movement. Consequently, slower movements allow you to feel natural restraints that might prevent you from overloading your neck.

Risk / Reward

Any procedure involves a certain amount of risk. However, you balance risk versus reward all the time during your daily activities.

When you consider risk for a medical procedure such as a heart operation, you evaluate if there is some other option to treat your heart without taking on the accompanying risk. You may have no alternatives to the operation. As a result, you accept the risk because there may be no other good treatment options and the risk of doing nothing is much worse.

You do, however, have alternatives when it comes to treating your neck and headache pain. If you need to repeatedly get your neck cracked for months or years, is it possible you can be doing damage to your joints, in addition to taking on the risks described above?

On the other hand, neck cracking feels good for many people. You release the pressure on your neck quickly. Your perceived risk is minimal.  You obtain more relief with acceptable risk, so the neck cracking treatment is the right one for you.

However, you would depend on another person for your deliverance.  Think about investigating other self-help techniques.

Alternatives to Neck Manipulation

Four of my clients this year told me they don’t need to get their neck manipulated anymore. They felt the acupressure points and gentle stretching released the muscles that were pulling on the neck vertebrae.  I coached them in these techniques and turn control of their condition over to them. People become empowered, not dependent.

You recognize Acupressure Man if you have been following these blogs. Numerous points help neck flexibility and headaches. Is not pressing points on the body to release stubborn neck muscles a less invasive approach?

You may increase your neck turning effectively with the acupoint Kidney 27 and the associated trigger points under the collarbone. I highlighted these points in an earlier blog. They are not visible on Acupressure Man for the simple reason I was not aware of them when the diagram was completed four years ago.

Acupressure points help many, but not all people. However, consider that the acupoints certainly will not put any pressure on the arteries in your neck!



-You understand that if not done properly, some techniques and exercises described in this blog could harm you. Any activities you perform are at your own risk, and you expressly agree to waive any claims against the author for any harm that may arise from your own actions. By reading this blog and conducting these exercises, you accept this risk. This blog provides content related to physical and/or mental health issues. As such, your use of techniques described acts as your acceptance of this disclaimer.

-Consult Chapter 2 in my book, “Calming the Headache Storm” to make sure the headache is not the sign of a more serious problem. The techniques, advice and strategies contained in this blog may not be suitable for every individual and should be abandoned if your headache increases. Seek the advice of your physician.


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