A ‘clicking neck’ is a clearly audible sound caused by either turning (rotation) or tilting (lateral flexion) of the head. In most cases, the clicking sound is a result of tight neck muscles causing the vertebrae to rub against each other during certain movements. While there may be no other symptoms present apart from a clicking neck sound, with time the persistent muscle spasm will lead to headaches, neck or upper back pain. In most cases of a clicking neck, ‘cracking’ the joints (medical term ~ articular release) usually resolves the clicking noise and eases tightness of the joint.
What causes a cracking neck sound?
Causes of a Clicking Neck
Most cases of a clicking neck are harmless but indicates a progressing condition, if the clicking noise can be repeated with every tilt or twist of the head. Usually the strain on the vertebrae is caused by spasm (knots or cramps) of the trapezius muscle of the back or the sternocleidomastoid muscle of the neck. This is commonly one-sided but can occur on both sides of the neck and back. The spasm causes the muscle to ‘shorten’ and pull on the bones of the spine (vertebral column). By attempting to move your head in the opposite direction, against the pull of the spasm, a clicking sound may be heard.
- Cavitation is a common term used by chiropractors and the cracking sound you may hear when having a chiropractic adjustment. It is a result of a a force causing a temporary vacuum within the joint, which then collapses and causes a clicking noise. Gas bubbles within any joint fluid can also cause this snapping noise.
- Herniated vertebral disc (bulging disc) may cause two neighboring vertebrae (bones of the spine) to lie closely together and rub against each other upon quick movement. The articulating vertebral facets (point at which two vertebrae rub together) may also cause a clicking noise in certain conditions where the joint is not adequately ‘lubricated’ and flexible.
- Rapid stretching of ligaments may cause a snapping noise, especially when there is sufficient force in the opposite direction, possibly from severe muscle spasm.
- Adhesions in the joints may also cause a clicking noise during twisting and turning the head as it impairs the movement. Technically this is usually more of a grating sound.
What causes tight neck muscles?
Common Causes of Neck Muscle Spasm
The most common cause of a clicking sound is neck muscle spasm, usually of the trapezius muscle of the back or sternocleidomastoid muscle of the neck. This spasm may be caused by :
- Poor posture. Hunching when walking or sitting and stooping over a desk for long periods of time. Sleeping ‘badly’, either on too many pillows or on an uneven surface.
- Whiplash. The neck muscles go into spasm after trauma, like a car accident, and this ‘pulls’ on the vertebral column (cervical vertebrae), often flattening out the normal curvature (lordosis) of the cervical vertebrae.
- Muscle strain and overexertion may occur with exercising without proper muscle stretching prior to the workout. A build up of lactic acid may also be present within the muscle due to overexertion and reduced oxygen intake by vigorous exercise or overuse of the muscle. All of these factors reduce the ability of the muscle to lengthen and shorten with relaxation and contraction respectively.
- Stress. The neck and shoulder muscles ‘cramp’ during periods of psychological stress. It is a consequence of the natural reaction of propping up the shoulders when experiencing stress and anxiety. If the psychological stress is prolonged, these muscles will go into spasm.
- Dehydration. Loss of water and electrolytes causes muscle cramping and the spam may persist until the fluid and salt levels in the body are restored to normal levels.
What are the other symptoms with a clicking neck?
Concomitant Signs and Symptoms of a Clicking Neck
- Reduced range of motion. The neck and head may lose its normal flexibility, especially when trying to touch the ear to the shoulder (lateral flexion) or when trying to peer behind the shoulder (rotation)
- Headaches. Pain at the back of the head or neck radiating to the temples or forehead.
- Muscle ache and tenderness when touching or pressing on the neck muscles.
- Arm numbness or tingling as a result of a ‘pinched nerves’ or cervical spondylosis which may develop due to prolonged neck muscle spasm or age respectively.
- Stiffness or a ‘hard’ lump may be palpable at the site of the muscle spasm.
- Redness is sometimes noticeable on the skin around the knot in the muscle and is more prominent after a hot shower.
How is clicking neck sound treated?
Treatment of a Clicking Neck
Since most cases of a clicking neck sound is due to muscle spasm, physical therapy may be necessary to ease the muscle spasm and stretch the muscle. Regular neck muscle stretching exercises are recommended daily, both in the morning and evening. These exercises help release the spasm, prevent it from recurring and can also help stretch out shortened muscles. Chiropractic adjustments may also be helpful but should only be done by a registered chiropractor.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may help ease muscle inflammation and pain that may occur as a result of prolonged muscle spasm. Muscle relaxants can help ease the spasm itself. Medication should be combined with physical therapy and a neck brace (collar) may be necessary to immobilize the neck for periods of time during the day. A massage and hot applications may also help with easing the muscle spasm and releasing the neck muscle trigger points.