Your joints evolved to move smoothly and without friction or catching. If your joints pop, grate, or sound creaky, you’ve probably suffered some damage. Those grinding noises are called “crepitus,” and they may be a sign that your joints need help.

One of the most common places to develop crepitus is in the cervical spine, otherwise known as your neck. Your neck may pop, grate, or make a cracking sound when you turn it from side to side or tilt it up or down. Crepitus may or may not be accompanied by neck pain. 

At Advanced Pain Management in Castro Valley, San Ramon, and Fremont, California, our pain management expert, Ravi Panjabi, MD, believes in catching pain conditions in their earliest stages, while they’re still easy to manage and possibly reverse. If you have crepitus, here’s what you should know about what causes those creaks, pops, and crunches.

You have gas bubbles in your neck

Although gas bubbles don’t sound like something that belongs in your neck, it’s fairly normal for joints to develop bubbles of nitrogen gas. Then, when you move the joint, the nitrogen bubbles burst. Pop!

You may have heard, or even unwittingly instigated, crepitus in your other joints. When you crack knuckles, for instance, the resulting sound (i.e., crepitus) is caused by the popping of nitrogen bubbles. This kind of crepitus — as long as it doesn’t worsen and isn’t accompanied by pain — is generally considered normal and doesn’t require medical attention.

Your tendons or ligaments are tight

You might also hear or feel a popping sound if the tendons and ligaments that bind your facet joints together in your neck are overly tight or tense. The tendons and ligaments may make snapping sounds when they move around a joint or near one another.

If your ligaments and tendons are causing your crepitus, they’ve probably suffered some kind of damage or wear and tear. Tight, inelastic tendons are also a sign of age. Be sure to get an evaluation if you chronically have a stiff neck or pain in your neck or shoulders in addition to crepitus.

You have arthritis or a herniated disc

One of the most common causes of crepitus is osteoarthritis (OA). OA is a classic wear-and-tear disease: Over time, as you use your joints, you wear down the protective cartilage that separates one joint bone from another. Without the cartilage, the bones rub against one another, making scraping, grinding, and popping noises.

Other forms of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA), can also degenerate cartilage. Another protective tissue that may deteriorate and lead to bone grinding is the vertebral disc that separates one joint in your neck from the next. Crepitus could be a sign that one or more discs has collapsed and can no longer protect the facet joints that connect the bones in your spine.

Crepitus may be a warning sign

Even if you don’t have neck pain now, if you have crepitus, you may have suffered a neck injury, or are in the beginning stages of what could become painful arthritis or a herniated disc. A complete workup and evaluation helps us determine the source of your crepitus and repair it, when possible.

For instance, injections of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) — a therapy that’s derived from your own blood — may help your facet joints regenerate cartilage and repair dehydrated discs. If your neck arthritis has progressed to the point where you have bone spurs or spinal stenosis, we may recommend spine injections to control pain and inflammation.

Listen to what your neck’s trying to tell you and investigate your crepitus today. And if you already have neck pain, don’t delay getting a diagnosis and treatment by calling our office nearest you or using our online booking tool.

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