Can Cracking Your Neck Cause a Stroke?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Over the past few months, you may have seen some news stories about neck cracking leading to a stroke. So, is there really a link between the two?

It’s very rare, but in some cases, neck cracking has led to a stroke. This article will explore this connection in greater detail.

What’s the link between cracking your neck and a stroke?

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These types of manipulations are often done to treat neck pain. They can be performed at home or clinically by a massage therapist, a chiropractor, or an osteopath.

The stroke itself occurs due to a condition called cervical artery dissection (CAD). This is when an artery in your neck tears. When this happens, blood begins to leak into the wall of the torn blood vessel, between the thin layers that make up the blood vessel wall.

As blood leaks, the space inside the blood vessel through which blood normally flows becomes narrow or even completely blocked.

Eventually, the blood from the torn artery can clot. This blocks the artery, reducing or cutting off blood flow to an area of the brain. The regions of the brain normally supplied by the damaged blood vessel can experience diminished blood flow, which results in a stroke.

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Strokes due to CAD are rare. They account for only 2 percent of ischemic strokes overall but are a notable cause of stroke in younger people.

More about cervical artery dissection (CAD)

CAD often occurs due to neck trauma. In addition to manipulation, other causes of neck trauma can include:

  • accidents
  • falls
  • injuries during sports or exercise

The symptoms of CAD, which may include neck pain and headache, can often go undiagnosed. That’s because these are also often common side effects of neck manipulation.

Can cracking your neck cause other side effects?

The most common side effects of neck manipulation are usually temporary and can include:

  • soreness or stiffness in the neck
  • headache
  • fatigue
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Aside from CAD and stroke, neck manipulation can potentially cause other serious issues. It could lead to or worsen a herniated disc or cause compression or damage to the spinal cord or surrounding nerves.

Are some people at a higher risk of a stroke from neck cracking?

Anyone can experience CAD. However, some factors may increase the risk of it occurring. The risk of spontaneous CAD and stroke without spinal manipulation may be higher in people who have:

  • high blood pressure
  • atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque inside the arteries that causes a narrowing of the arteries
  • fibromuscular dysplasia, a condition that causes growths inside the artery walls
  • certain genetic conditions affecting connective tissue, such as Marfan syndrome or vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • migraine
  • recent infection

What about getting your neck cracked by a chiropractor?

So if you have neck pain, is it safer to have your neck cracked by a chiropractor? Not necessarily. Case studies have documented CAD following both self-manipulation and manipulation by a chiropractor.

There has been debate over neck manipulation and whether it should be used to treat neck pain. This debate centers on whether the benefits of neck manipulation outweigh the potential health risks.

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The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that spinal manipulation is relatively safe when done by a properly trained and licensed professional. They do also note that patients who opt for neck manipulation should be aware of the associated risks.

If you choose to seek chiropractic care for neck pain, be sure to use a licensed chiropractor who will work collaboratively with you and your primary care doctor. Try to find a chiropractor who has experience addressing neck pain.

Other self-care options for neck pain

If you have a sore or stiff neck, the following self-care options may help ease your discomfort:

  • Stretches. Performing some gentle stretches may help ease tension or pain in your neck.
  • Using cold and heat. Applying a cold compress for the first couple of days may help reduce pain and inflammation. After a few days, use a heat source such as a heating pad to boost circulation in your neck muscles.
  • Massage. A gentle massage of the affected area may help relieve pain and tension in your neck.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Some examples include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

If you have neck pain that gets worse, persists, or begins to interfere with your daily activities despite self-care, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help determine what may be causing your pain.

The bottom line

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Neck cracking, also known as neck manipulation, can be used to help treat neck pain. In very rare cases, this has led to a stroke. This can happen if an artery in the neck tears. A blood clot can form, blocking blood flow to the brain.

Neck pain can be treated conservatively at home using OTC pain relievers, neck stretches, and cold and hot compresses. If the pain gets worse or doesn’t go away, see your doctor to discuss your condition and available treatment options.

Generally speaking, neck manipulation is typically safe when performed by a qualified professional. If you do choose neck manipulation as a therapy, be sure to see a licensed, trained provider and to be aware of the potential risks.

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