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Neck sprain, stiffness, CAT scan showed no signs of misalignment. Why is my neck and spine cracking?

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Orthopaedic Surgeon
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I am a male 5'7, 33yrs old, and 170lbs. I have never had any kind of neck or back injury before. I sprained my neck about 2 months ago while lifting my wife on my shoulders. She weighs about 155lbs. She started swaying back and forth on my shoulders... which caused me to acquire a cervical strain. I've been going to orthopedic specialist and physical therapist to get it better; however I have not seen any improvement.

My neck, back, and spine crack all the time such as... when I take a XXXXXXX breath; move my head, or even when I'm lying down. My upper spine also goes into slight spasms if I workout or lift weights. I have awoken with stiffness in the base of my neck and lower back for the past eight weeks. I never experienced that kind of stiffness before my injury. The stiffness is not as bad as it was I first injured my neck though. I had a CT Scan and MRI, which both showed no signs of misalignment or herniated disks. I believe that I have whiplash/cervical strain with soft tissue damage (just a guess).

Here are my questions:
1. Why is my neck and spine cracking? And what is it actually doing?

2. Should I continue to lifting weights even though my neck and spine keep popping and my neck gets stiff?

3. How long does it take to fully recover from this type of injury, including the regaining my full range of motion without my neck or spine popping? (It has already been eight weeks)
Posted Thu, 26 Apr 2012 in Bones, Muscles and Joints
Answered by Dr. Atul Wankhede 5 hours later
Thanks for posting your query.

A very rare but interesting mode of injury you got there.

No doubt you are already aware that lifting heavy unstable weight on shoulder has caused some physical damage to your shoulder girdle along with neck. To narrow it down your physician already has a clear CT and MRI which means that no damage to bony structures (vertebrae, scapula, clavicle) and no apparent spinal cord, nerve roots, blood vessels etc). This leaves us with the only possibility- muscle strain and/or ligament sprain.

When in such an event, the muscles try to bring about stability to balance weight and avoid injury to delicate structures like spinal cord and its nerves. In its attempt it must have gone into severe spasm as a natural defense mechanism. This causes the bones to whom these muscles of back and neck are attached to stiffen. And since most of the muscles originate and insert into vertebrae, the back tends to go stiff and aches while doing so. The reason you hear the cracking is because the vertebrae have articulations (like joint elsewhere in body to allow a certain amount of movement), and when one moves or stretches the stiffened joints relax and relieve their intra-articular pressure. That I must say is a good thing and nothing to worry about.

What you must worry about is getting rid of that pain. You are already taking Ibuprofen as analgesic along with Flexeril as muscle relaxant. But if it doesn't seem to work, ask your physician to change it. Along with that you must visit a physiotherapist for cervical traction and local ultrasonic treatment. You need to completely avoid lifting weights and doing work outs for some time. How much time is difficult to say, but you will know its time when pain has completely subsided. Also ask your physiotherapist to teach you neck isometric exercises. These exercises should be done once painless and to be continued life long. Remember these exercises are the only long term treatment and natural defense against future relapses.

Hope this answers your question. Please feel free to get back to us with more queries, I'm available for follow up.
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