Think Twice Before Cracking Your Neck. Here's Why

Got a stiff neck? You may want to think twice before cracking it to find some relief. Though very rare, neck manipulation, or the twisting or turning movement that often leads to a popping sound, can actually cause a stroke (via Healthline).

In recent years, cases of neck cracking leading to stroke have made national news headlines. In 2019, a 28-year-old man in Oklahoma landed himself in the emergency room unable to walk after trying to relieve pain in his neck, according to The Washington Post. "I went to stretch it," Josh Hader told the newspaper, "and as I was using my hand to apply a little bit more pressure than I probably should have, I heard a pop." Doctors said he suffered a stroke, which was caused after an artery in his neck tore and formed a clot. 

Hader survived the ordeal, but another wasn't so lucky. In 2016, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office confirmed 34-year-old Katie May died of a stroke that was caused by a tear in a major artery during a chiropractic treatment, CBS News reported.

The link between neck manipulation and stroke

The medical term for this occurrence is a vertebral artery dissection, or a tear in the inner lining of the vertebral artery, one of the four main arteries that supply blood to the brain (via Michigan Medicine). It is located in the back of the neck. When the vertebral artery is torn, blood can enter the arterial wall and clot. This can block the artery and impede blood flow to the brain, which can lead to a stroke.

The precise number of people who have suffered a stroke due to neck manipulation is not known, though experts say it is very rare. Still, it is a risk worth noting. "Anecdotally, many stroke neurologists have seen patients present to the emergency room directly from their chiropractor's office with stroke symptoms, and that temporal association can be difficult to ignore," Mollie McDermott, M.D., a neurologist at Michigan Medicine said in a post on the hospital's website.

Is neck manipulation by a chiropractor safe?

There has been an ongoing debate about whether neck manipulation should be used to treat pain — and if the benefits outweigh the risks. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health, says spinal manipulation is "relatively safe when performed by a trained and licensed practitioner." The Center also notes that patients should be aware of the risks involved, including artery tears and strokes.

If you want to try at-home remedies to relieve neck pain, there are some options. The Cleveland Clinic recommends some stretches to try while sitting at your desk or in the car, such as rolling your shoulders up and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together, and bringing your ear to your shoulder. These exercises should be done 10 times each. You can also apply heat or ice to the affected area, take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or have a partner gently massage your neck. Finally, avoid sleeping on your stomach, as you're likely to twist your head more frequently in this position, leading to or exacerbating pain.