What Is Neck Crepitus?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Neck crepitus is cracking, popping, and grinding sounds in your neck. They can be caused by tightness and stiffness, poor posture, or arthritis.

Neck crepitus isn't generally a cause for concern. But chronic, repetitive, or painful cracking could point to a more serious problem.

This article will walk you through what crepitus is, what causes neck crepitus, when to see a healthcare provider, and how it's diagnosed and treated.

Closeup of mixed race woman rubbing sore neck

JGI / Tom Grill / Getty Images

What Is Crepitus? 

Crepitus is cracking, popping, and grinding sounds in your joints. You may hear and feel it when you move.

Grinding sounds and sensations are often tied to stiff joints with cartilage damage.

Cartilage in joints helps your bones glide smoothly over each other. But cartilage can be damaged or worn away. Then, bones grind against each other. Cracking and popping sounds are often the result of air bubbles. They form in empty spots within the joints. That's called cavitation. It's often thought to be thought that the sound came from popping the bubbles. Research published in 2015 suggests it may actually be from the bubbles forming.

When you suddenly force the joint to move a certain way, different parts of it separate briefly. That opens up cavities where the bubbles can form.

Either way, you get a popping sound from quick movements. That can be cracking your knuckles or bending or twisting your neck.

Once you pop a joint, it won't pop again until the pressure has time to build up. That often takes about 20 minutes.

Recap

Grinding in joints may be from cartilage wearing away. That makes bones rub against each other when you move.

Popping and cracking are related to gas bubbles that form in small cavities inside the joints.

Causes of Neck Crepitus

Neck crepitus occurs with joint damage, stiffness, or arthritis of the cervical (neck) vertebrae. Neck arthritis (cervical spondylosis) comes from cartilage degrading over time.

Loss of cartilage means cervical vertebrae can't glide smoothly over each other. So when you move, it causes grinding.

Neck stiffness can also be due to injury. Auto accidents and whiplash are common causes, but anything that causes neck trauma can lead to inflammation and tight muscles and connective tissues.

When to Get Medical Help

Excessive neck cracking, popping, or grinding may indicate a serious problem. That includes instability of the cervical spine.

See a healthcare provider if you have:

  • Neck cracks with every movement
  • Significant pain or swelling
  • A recent neck injury

Joint cavitations and cracking are more likely in joints with more resistance in surrounding tissues. Those tissues include:

  • Cervical paraspinal muscles: Run from the base of your skull down to vertebrae in your upper back. They form a "V" shape.
  • Ligaments: Tissues that connect bones to each other and keep them stable
  • Fascia: A thin, body-wide web of connective tissue that holds your organs, bones, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels in place

Poor posture can also cause neck stiffness. That can limit movement and cause neck crepitus.

Recap

Neck crepitus is caused by joint damage or arthritis in the neck joints. It's more common in joints with high resistance from soft tissues. Poor posture is also a cause.

Diagnosis 

Neck crepitus and its causes may be diagnosed by your regular healthcare provider, an orthopedic doctor, a physical therapist, or a chiropractor.

A diagnosis of neck crepitus is based on:

  • Symptoms
  • A physical exam
  • Sometimes, imaging studies

Your healthcare provider will listen for neck crepitus with certain movements. They'll ask you to make some of these movements.

They may order imaging if your neck crepitus is chronic, repetitive, or painful. These may include X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

They're looking for:

Treatment 

Neck crepitus most often comes from a stiff neck. So treatment is generally aimed at restoring the range of motion and mobility of your cervical spine.

The first treatments are often:

  • Heat: A hot pack can relieve tension.
  • Stretches: These can relieve tension in the trapezius and levator scapulae muscles.
  • Strengthening: Exercises that make deep neck muscles stronger can give your neck joints support.
  • Improving posture: This is especially if you stand with your head forward and upper back and shoulders rounded.

If you have significant tightness, a physical therapist may help. They can help you get things moving better.

In rare cases where the cervical spine is unstable, spinal fusion surgery is an option.

Summary

Neck crepitus comes from worn-away cartilage or gas bubbles in small cavities inside your joints. Poor posture, injury, or arthritis may also cause it.

Diagnosis is based on symptoms, a physical exam, and sometimes, imaging. Treatments include heat, stretching and strengthening, and improving posture. Surgery may be needed in rare cases.

A Word From Verywell

If your neck crepitus isn't painful, it may be tempting to just ignore it. It's better to see your healthcare provider, though.

Something may be going on inside your joint that'll get worse over time. Getting a quick diagnosis and the right treatments can keep that from happening.

Was this page helpful?
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Library of Congress. What causes the noise when you crack a joint?

  2. Kawchuk GN, Fryer J, Jaremko JL, Zeng H, Rowe L, Thompson R. Real-time visualization of joint cavitationPLoS One. 2015;10(4):e0119470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119470

  3. American Academy of Orthapaedic Surgeons. Cervical Spondylosis (Arthritis of the Neck).

  4. Mahmoud NF, Hassan KA, Abdelmajeed SF, Moustafa IM, Silva AG. The relationship between forward head posture and neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysisCurr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2019;12(4):562-577. doi. 10.1007/s12178-019-09594-y

Additional Reading