what to do about my crunchy neck
June 1, 2016 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I've always had a very tight upper-back/shoulder/neck region, and over the past couple years (I am in my late twenties) I have noticed a crunchy crepitus noise in my neck/cervical spine region that is pretty much constant throughout the day, as in, when I take a deep breath or sit up straighter, I hear little popping and crunching noises. It's gotten to the point where I want to DO something about it, but I'm not sure what kind of doctor to go to, or how useful it will be in the near future, as I am currently pregnant and probably can't do too much in the way of x-rays and MRIs. Main question is - how normal/abnormal is this for my age, and what kind of doctor should I try to see?

more snowflakes: I've had a muscle knot right by my right scapula for probably about a decade. Usually it doesn't bother me, but sometimes there's pain there, and other times I also get an almost lumbar pain on also on the right side in my low back. I feel that they are connected because when I foam-roll/lacrosse ball the scapula knot, usually over time the other pain dissipates. The knot never, ever goes away, and I've tried a few massage therapists, although nothing for a long period of time due to cost. The crepitus sound in cervical spine/neck, while alarming to me, never causes any pain.

My main worries are that I'm developing early-onset arthritis (did I mention I'm a hypochondriac? self-diagnosed) and that the discs in my cervical spine are degenerating, and that I will be a hobbling wreck by mid-thirties. I've been doing yoga and some of the exercises from the Gokhale method (stretch-sitting, stretch-lying) on and off for a couple years and they usually yield some relief. Putting my back/neck into mild traction and breathing deeply always feels *really* good and yield a ton of little pops, but my posture is still pretty poor on a day-to-day basis.

As always, YANMD. I've never seen a chiropractor and am a bit suspicious of their "woo" and possible damage that adjustments can do, but if going to one has solved a similar problem for you I'd love to hear about it.
posted by permiechickie to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am currently seeing a physical therapist for shoulder problems that she diagnosed as neck/thoracic spine problems. She's given me a set of exercises to do and I can already feel the difference. She diagnosed it by having me go through a set of motions, plus feeling and manipulating my head and neck. I would definitely recommend this approach, even if you end up escalating to something more intensive later.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:31 AM on June 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

I don't have a ton of advice, but 1) pregnancy can mess with your back more than normal day-to-day life (especially if you've been dealing with extra tension due to nausea/fatigue and as you move into the third tri and your back muscles & glutes need to do more work to compensate for your abs going offline) and 2) a theracane ($35 on Amazon) can help you hit those upper back knots better than foam rolling or a lacrosse ball - highly recommended from this foam rolling/massage/yoga-obsessed household.
posted by Jaclyn at 9:45 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would really recommend a physical therapist for your neck and shoulders. I'm currently working with one on shoulder issues that also lead to tight neck muscles. She has me doing stretches, foam rolling and strengthening, so that my posture will improve. I've been at it a week and already feel improvement.

As far as the worries about your disks degenerating, etc. I understand that. I collapsed in a heap of tears talking to my PCP about this worry and well, it turns out I needed help with my general anxiety levels. Also she reassured me that my bones weren't deteriorating. Could pregnancy be raising your worry levels? If any of that resonates with you, do talk to your PCP. Both about your (legitimate!) health concerns and your anxiety levels.
posted by purple_bird at 9:53 AM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Go to a spine dr and get a PT prescription for a real physical therapist or sports medicine person. Do not waste your time with a chiropractor.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:57 AM on June 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know much* about neck crunchies or have any real medical advice, but I can speak to the tightness/pain from personal experience:

I was in a car accident when I was in second grade and have had back/neck/shoulder pain/tightness at various levels (sometimes quite low) but more or less constantly since then (I'm in my early 30s).

Until last summer when I started doing Yoga with Adriene's Yoga for Upper Back Pain video (free, on YouTube) consistently. I know I sound like a shill, but consistent, gentle, mindful, targeted stretching has done wonders for my pain and tightness that none of the physical therapy, pain meds, massage therapy, acupuncture, and occasional chiropractor visits did, and I'm just so happy to be looser and pretty much pain free!

I think this works for me for two reasons:

1. I was always very skeptical of the idea that "listening to your body" was useful, especially since mine just seemed to say "Ow! Ow! Ow!" all the time. It took things getting pretty tight and painful for me to try something like yoga, but it was amazing to me to discover that once I did slow down and start paying attention, I could start doing something about the discomfort. I'm not sure I ever knew what it meant to relax my shoulders before I started doing this video consistently.

2. Concomitantly, as I started paying more attention to my body during yoga and figuring out the tiny little movements that would loosen things here and there, I just naturally became more aware of things like posture and ergonomics during work/normal day-to-day activities. That meant I continued my "practice" all day, here and there, rather than just for the 12 minutes on the mat.

Two things that really helped while doing this:

1. Consistency. My shoulders are tight today because I haven't been good about doing this video in the last week. And of course, once I get back to tight, that's the last time I want to get on the yoga mat. It's best if I just make myself do this video at least a few times a week, if not daily. If I slack off, like now, I have to remind myself that I'll feel better tomorrow if I do it today - the benefits are not instantaneous, at least for me.

2. Gentleness and mindfulness. If you're like me and you've been tight for a long time, you kinda have trained yourself not to feel your sensations, especially where it hurts. So then, to feel a stretch, you really crank into it. Don't do that. Move slowly and with as much attention as possible. I like to make it a game - how little can I move my head here and still get a stretch? If I wake up feeling tight, I like to do the same thing in bed - what micromovements can I make that release my neck or my shoulders just a little? As I'm sure you know from your own yoga practice, cranking is generally counterproductive.

I'd also warn you to be super mindful and gentle in your regular yoga practice as well. For me, for the first month or so, downward dog was a huge trigger for neck pain and headaches (I'm sure I wasn't doing it right then, but I think I also was just so tight and inflamed that anything would set it off). A super friend of mine told me I could do tabletop anytime everyone else does downward dog. It was exactly the modification tip I needed and let me get through classes without pain, and now I can do downward dog just fine. Don't hesitate to modify anything in your normal classes/practice if it's triggering pain/more tightness/discomfort.

I don't know how far along you are in your pregnancy, but you may want/have to skip the cobra sequence in the video, and maybe modify a few of the other ones. That's okay - you should still get plenty of benefit from the other stretches. You can do the first couple in a chair instead of on the floor as well. Just do what you can do. And you might also like the short, silent Yoga for Daily Neck Relief video by Adriene as well - those stretches should definitely be pregnancy-friendly.

* I did have some neck crunchies when I was super tight, especially right at the base of my neck. It'd be the kind of thing where every step I'd take when I ran, I'd get a constant little click-click-click. I don't really run anymore, but I haven't noticed it since I've been doing yoga.

On preview, Jaclyn is right, a theracane is awesome! I prefer this one, my husband prefers this one. We also like this book on Trigger Points, which may help you both with using the theracane and with dealing with the pain you mentioned that goes away in one place when you massage another place, which sounds like referred pain to me.

I also love lying on my back on a foam roller (foam roller along my spine, head resting on one end of it, legs spilling off the end of it) and putting my arms out to my sides and just slowly letting gravity stretch my pecs (which get super tight when my shoulders/neck are tight). This is a great tip from a massage therapist friend of mine. So nice, though probably not late-pregnancy-friendly. Maybe postpartum?

Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 9:59 AM on June 1, 2016 [28 favorites]

Best answer: I have similar (very loud, to me) popping and cracking in my neck. I can feel it in my skull and it is slowly driving me insane because I know it's coming but I never know when.

I went to my spine doctor, which is who you should go to. He did the little thing with the hammer on my toes and gave me a check up and said it was nothing really to worry about unless I experienced numbness or tingling. He said PT would help but he didn't think it was absolutely necessary. He explained that we are hunter/gatherers and not meant to sit in a chair all day.

I suggest you find a spine doctor and maybe do some PT.

Stay away from chiropractors. There's nothing at all they can do for your upper back/neck even though they claim they can work miracles. I was desperate enough to go to one at one time and I wish I hadn't.
posted by bondcliff at 10:02 AM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was in a car accident when I was in second grade and have had back/neck/shoulder pain/tightness at various levels (sometimes quite low) but more or less constantly since then (I'm in my early 30s).

yeah, i meant to mention this as well - if you've ever, at any age, been in any kind of fender bender, even the most minor seeming thing, and you are having neck/shoulder tightness and pain as an adult, you REALLY want to get that checked out asap because let me tell you, just letting it go because you think it might go away on its own is what has landed me with permanent chronic pain that ranges from "dull throbbing ache" to "reaper man, i am ready".
posted by poffin boffin at 10:14 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Go to a spine doctor. As in, someone with 'MD' after their name. Not a chiropractor, not a physical therapist (unless directed to by the person who is an MD). My disc problems were diagnosed by a neurologist after an MRI and then handled by a neurosurgeon; orthopedists also handle c-spine surgery if needed.

According to some quick reading (1, 2, 3) MRI doesn't seem to pose much if any danger to a fetus, but your doctor can evaluate your risks with you and help you make a choice that balances your health/needs with those of your child.

Probably a good idea to avoid yoga/other exercise until you've spoken to a doctor--you could be making things worse.

Basically, go to your GP and get a referral to an ortho or neuro doctor and go from there. And stop self-diagnosing (I do it too) because that way lies madness (you know this).
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:20 AM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I came on here to also recommend Yoga with Adrienes Neck Pain YouTube. You'll feel and hear the results after just one time doing this video, for sure.
posted by stevedawg at 10:35 AM on June 1, 2016

Chiming in to recommend the Trigger Point Therapy workbook that bananacabana mentioned above. If the physical therapist/massage therapist is working just on the knot that you mentioned, they may be missing other points that are contributing to the pain. Google "referred pain" and you'll get the gist.
posted by tuesdayschild at 3:51 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input everybody. I got in touch with the orthopedic group at my medical center and they said they wouldn't be able to do anything without an x-ray, recommended I get a referral for physical therapy and come back after I deliver if I'm still having issues then, or to call again if I get any debilitating pain. So, in the meantime I'm going to pursue the PT, get a theracane (I'd seen those and they looked pretty awesome) and try out the yoga for neck pain.
posted by permiechickie at 5:37 PM on June 1, 2016

« Older The specific, gritty nuts and bolts of prepaid...   |   Can you recommend a chemical reaction? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.