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"The Dangers of DIY Bone Popping: Why Leave it to the Professionals"

Owl chiropractic doctors discussing digital motion x-rays

During many of my new patient exams, patients tell me that they routinely adjust themselves by twisting until they hear a pop. I’ve also lost count of how many times someone has asked me if cracking their knuckles is bad for them, the answer is – it depends. 

Let’s start with the popping or cracking noise we hear. This is called a cavitation, simply the release of gas in a joint. A cavitation does not mean that the bone needs to be adjusted, and lack of a cavitation does not mean it was a bad adjustment. The cavitation takes place (if the joint decides to release gas) when you go past the passive range of motion into the para-physiological space of the joint. The Chiropractic adjustment takes place in the paraphysiological space of the joint’s range of motion where the impulse essentially resets the neurological connection between the brain and the muscles that attach to the joint using mechanoreceptor cells.

range of motion of the joints

Now, a lot of patients will report increased cavitations with normal stretching and movement after starting Chiropractic care. Again, this cavitation or gas release is rather benign and doesn’t mean anything. Generally, this starts to happen after Chiropractic care because your body is starting to loosen up and move better.

What we discourage at OWL Chiropractic is pushing or twisting your body past your passive range of motion into the para-physiological space and causing a cavitation. This is known as self-adjusting. You see, the truth is, I could teach just about anyone to crack or pop any joint in the body. However, being able to make a bone pop does not make you a Chiropractor. There are quite a few things that go into an adjustment:

Ruling out red flags. Chiropractors spend a large amount of time in school learning when it is appropriate to adjust someone and when it is not. While Chiropractic adjustments are by and large very safe, there are certain instances when it is inappropriate to adjust someone and knowing when that is is very important. 

Line of drive. A Chiropractor also takes into account the “line of drive” or the plane of motion a joint naturally has in their adjustment. This helps reduce wear and tear on the joint, which is one of the main reasons people damage their knuckles when cracking them. 

a diagram of self cracking vs chiropractic adjustment

Adjusting the right joint. You should only adjust a joint that needs to be adjusted. Adjusting joints that are already moving properly can cause a negative impact on the body. First, it can cause joint laxity by overstressing the ligaments around the joint. Second, it can cause the body to lock up a joint that was previously moving fine, causing a secondary subluxation or misalignment in the spine. By self-adjusting as previously mentioned, it is most likely that you are making the incorrect joints pop.

Palpation by skilled Chiropractors has been estimated to be 30% accurate at identifying a joint that isn’t moving properly. At OWL Chiropractic we utilize digital dynamic radiography (DDR or motion x-ray) to identify which bones in your spine aren’t moving properly and how they are not moving properly. We also utilize the Pierce Results System of analysis to identify which joint is the root cause of the misalignments. This increases our accuracy in adjusting the right joint. 

Knowing when to adjust a joint. The body is an amazing self-healing organism and it takes time between adjustments to heal and correct itself. Adjusting joints while the body is still processing the previous adjustment can cause complications and delay healing. Therefore, at OWL Chiropractic we utilize infrared thermography to evaluate the function and healing phase of your nervous system. By utilizing pattern work in the scans through the Pierce Results System we know when to adjust and, arguably more importantly, when not to adjust a joint. When a nervous system is happy or still healing from the last adjustment, we can utilize techniques like Logan Basic to help it along. 

Force, speed, and rate. In addition to everything else discussed, it is important to utilize the appropriate force, speed, and rate in an adjustment. A nervous system that is stuck might require a more forceful (but still comfortable) adjustment as opposed to a nervous system that is healing appropriately. Delivering the wrong force, speed, or rate of adjustment can cause the nervous system to shut down and stop healing. Again, at OWL Chiropractic we utilize the infrared thermography scans that we perform before and after every single adjustment on our patients, to help determine how we will adjust the joint. Our options for adjustments include hand adjustments with drop tables, instrument adjusting, and pressure or tonal techniques.

As a TLDR recap: there is a lot that goes into knowing when, where, and how to adjust a joint in your body. While you should definitely perform the stretches and exercises you are shown at our office, please leave the adjusting to the professionals. 

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