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What is a Clicking Neck? Cracking Sound when moving Head

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.
Clicking Neck : Picture of Neck & Back Muscles & Vertebral Column

Clicking Neck : Picture of Neck & Back Muscles & Vertebral Column

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.


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12 Responses to What is a Clicking Neck? Cracking Sound when moving Head

  • Hi. I woke up with a stiff neck this morning but it has eased up a bit since then. When I turn my head with force I can hear a grating noise. Is this something to worry about?

  • Thank you ! Thank you for writing this article. Oh my goodness, I have spent several thousands of dollars just trying to get this piece of knowledge and solution. Even been to a Professional and Licensed Chiropractor for almost 1 year and still had no idea what was going on with me. My neck was lock after sleeping (probably in a bad position), I forced to turn my head in the morning because I need to drive and that began my neck clicking problem since the last 5 years. Just knowing what caused this, it being harmless, and the suggested solutions is all I needed. Thank you. Now I know how to tackle this health issue head-on. Blessings to you.

    Ridge

  • I have the same problem. I totally agree that the cause of these clicking noises is most often muscle spasm, specifically trigger points/knots in the muscle which causes them to contract and shorten. I’ve had a lot of issues with trigger points in my neck, that I am now having treated. If you can find a good trigger point therapist that uses filiform acupuncture needles they can help release these stubborn trigger points more effectively than massage. You need to get all of the trigger points out of the affected muscle tissue (usually the upper trapezius) before attempting to do stretching exercises to lengthen them back out.

  • I’m so glad I went onto this site.it answered all my questions,I’ve had a neck problem for many years,and as I’ve got older,it got worse,now I know what makes the clicking sound,at last I can do something constructed.I know it will never get better,but I’m sure it wil get easier.Thank You so much

  • I have a history of cervical spondulosis C5C6 resulting in spinal surgery, a cage and bone graft. That was 6 years ago. I have in the last 4 months developed a snapping in my neck (very high up). No pain at the site but I have a new general dull ache under the scapula with heat and ache in the elbow and wrist, some altered sensation in the hand. I don’t want to go through this again.

  • Hi ronald i also have a graiting sound in my neck and it sometimes leads to headache ihave this for almost 3 months from now relaxation can help you and put some vics vapor rubs or use efecasent oil

  • Hi Rebecca–I had scoliosis and had fusion surgery (T2 all the way down to S2) 4 years ago–I have a cage and bone grafts too (32 screws, hooks, rods). While I do not have any back pain, my neck is always stiff and tight. I hear and feel a “clunking” sound sometimes when I turn my head. Physical therapists have said that there is no where else for tension to go except my neck due to my entire spine being fused. Massage was recommended, but I am leery of doing that.

  • This page has answered a question and a problem I have had all my life, now I have a solution

  • I am also facing such type of problem. I have regular headache since last 3 years. there is pain in my neck also. I feel my neck is very tight and I fell better while moving my head. I also feel some cracking sounds while moving my head. My top head is very hot. I can not concentrate in my work, always feeliing sickness and worried about my health.

  • Hi I’ve had mine for 2 years now it’s caused a lump in my neck (at the left side) shoulder blade very sore everyday. I have the urge to vigorously rotate the shoulder because if the feeling I get . I haven’t tried any medication but will be seeing my doctor soon .

  • Hi there,

    Apologies for a pedantic clarification of the definition of ‘Cavitation’. The sound occurs when the drop in pressure occurs within the enclosed joint space and capsule. It is at this point that synovial fluid changes physical state to a gas, which releases sound energy.

    One the temporary force is removed, the separated joint space contracts and the synovial gas converts back to fluid over the next 20 minutes. There is no sound during this last phase of joint contraction (or collapse as you put it).

    Therefore patients should not fear the ‘cracking’ sound when in the hands of an experienced manipulative practitioner (a skill which takes years to develop, without meaning to sound like Im ;’bigging it up’). The sound represents a separation of joint surfaces, rather than a crushing or breaking of bones or joints, as some may fear.

  • Hi 3 weeks ago my friends were wrestling and a large friend fell on me and my neck twisted to the right. I heard a tearing sound. Now when I turn my head to the left I hear and feel a clicking sound. No pain but makes me nervous.”