For a handful of years in my late 20’s and early 30’s I was addicted to cracking my spine. Several times each day I would strongly twist my body to the right and try to crack and pop as many vertebrae as possible. The more cracks and pops I felt, the merrier I was.
The relief of cracking my spine freed up my lower back in a way that only a body worker could do for me, yet it was short-lived. The next time I’d feel stuck, which was usually a few hours later, I’d happily twist and crack again. What I didn’t know then was that the constant cracking was adding to any already present joint instability. When I found this out, I quickly snapped out of my crack and pop enjoyment. I want to be healthy for years to come, and spinal health plays a major role in my idea of health. I don’t want to end up a retired yoga teacher who hobbles around due to lower back pain!
I promptly promised myself I would re-establish stability in my spine by no longer cracking it and strengthening the muscles around the now unstable joints. Since it was my lumbar vertebrae that regularly got the twist and crack, I knew needed to improve my core strength.
In this particular case, when I say core, I don’t mean a bronzed eight pack set of rectus abdominus. I’m referring to all the muscles that keep the middle of the body stable and protected – the abdominal muscles as well as the lower back muscles.
In my exploration, I met the mighty multifidus muscle. Located deep in the spine, these very thin and small muscles fill the grooves on either side of the spinous processes from sacrum to skull. They take pressure off the vertebral discs so that our body weight can be evenly distributed along the spine. They are responsible for supporting and stabilizing the spine.
Given their wide-ranging responsibilities, anything we do that includes bending backward (stretching first thing in the morning), bending sideways (picking up a dropped pen), and turning to the side (whirling around to see who just called your name) recruit these super muscles. Even more astounding is that the multifidus gets activated before any action is carried out to protect the spine from injury. So before you lift your forearm to scroll down this page… Yup, the multifidi are already contracting.
So how do I keep my multifidi so mighty? Come back on Friday to read about my favorite Yoga Tune Up® exercises to strengthen the multifidus and core, keeping you (and me) healthy for a long time!
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Learn more about YTU solutions for back pain.
This is definitely a muscle I need to learn more about! I crack and pop my back all the time, just as you described. Having had a herniated disk, DDD, and SI instability – I look forward to learning more in your next blog!
Oh Jeez! I loved craking my spine, rib cage and lombar spine! But you made me realize that I don’t it as often as when I was in school sitting almost half of day. Rarely I do it. And what did changed in my life? I have become a regular rock climber, so I stabilize my spine with a more muscular shape (training seriouly and climbing often for years), I have been doing yoga for the last 10 years now (after school’s years) and ho, i have become a yoga teacher! Make sense now!
I thought to cracking the spine is a good thing to remove blockades. I didn´t know that this habbit will force instability of my spine. So, the next step is to go to your next blog. Thanks!
After a bout of serious back pain, when I was just beginning to heal, I would get into certain twisting poses and I would hear my back cracking — click, click, click. I was amused and initially thought it was a good thing. However, just as you point out, I soon learned that it was not a good idea and began doing gentle boats. At that time I didn’t know that I was working the multifidi but eventually I put two and two together and now I routinely include poses that work the multifidi in my classes and my home practice. Thanks for sharing!
Interesting post, Dawn. I hadn’t realized until now that back cracking was a sign of instability in the spine. I too used to crack my back all the time and have had a tendency to suffer from low back pain. Your post is a great reminder about the importance of building stability through strength building in the abdominal in low back muscles. I look forward to seeing the exercise you share for this.
I used to train a lot and though I had a strong back, but in 2009, I’ve begun to have repetitive back sprain…..I didn’t understand why !?!?!? And then I met my YTU teacher and had private lesson with her and she talk to me about multifidi and how can I strengthen my back in another way that I used to do, more deeper then we always used to do. This, with my YTU therapy balls, save my life !!!!!!!
Thank you for this post, I’ll read more about this…..and hope, in turn, to save the life of other people one day !!!
I always teach my class participants about how to find their multifidus even before I took the Yoga Tune Up(R) training. Thanks for giving me a fresh perspective and some added material…My participants are waking up to their bodies and loving it!
Thank you for the reminder that its not just the larger superficial muscles of the core that need to be worked but the internal smaller muscles as well. And then remembering the muscles along the spine as well. I truly believe that our inner body is much stronger than our outer body and I see this translating in a physical sense from smaller but powerful internal muscles that radiate the true foundation on which the external muscles rely.
I am also guilty of cracking my spine. Due to an old shoulder injury, I have developed an awful habit of cracking my neck, not to mention how satisfying it is to crack my thoracic spine as I move through my first up dog of the day. Only now am I realizing the cost of this nasty habit as I am feeling an increased amount of pain in these areas, which only lead to more cracking…. Thank you shedding some light on the instability this causes and insight into how we can stabilize the spine.
As a fellow “cracker” I really appreciate this article. I hate to say it, but I haven’t been thinking about any instability that may be accumulating as I am cracking my back. I think it is time for me to pay a little closer attention to what is actually happening when I feel the urge to crack. Thanks for bringing a “body blindspot” to my attention.
Great article on the importance of the multifidi and a strong core. I was also guilty of cracking my lower back multiple times a day (often without trying). With strength training and Yoga Tune Up I’ve been able to bring more stability to my spine and I get fewer cracks.
I loved the fact that you made it clear that abs are not only those six pack showed on every magazine cover. Integration of the abs and back muscles is far more important than having a pretty “ripped show off abs”. Multifidi are so underestimated since other bigger muscles are scenestealers, however, how you clearly explain how and why they are so important makes me want to know more about it and also, a new view when teaching.
I like the idea of the mighty multifidi, and glad you pointed out the the cracking creates great instability. Going to check out next post to find exercises to support multifidus and core.
The mighty multifidi. I love that you are bringing awareness to the these little but very powerful muscles. I like to think of them like tiny “rotator cuff muscles” but for the spine, as they do provide dynamic stability. I too was guilty of cracking my lower back and had to resist the urge and instead stabilize the core to improve stability.
Thank you for explaining the very important multifidi and how cracking can cause instability .
Great read. Glad you stopped your crack habit 😉
Looking forward to reading which YTU exercises help keep your multifidi mighty. For now I have a question: I used to hunch forward a lot because I am tall. Recently I have been doing exercises to strengthen my abdominals and lengthen my back. However, when I get myself aligned and take deep breaths, I often feel a few little cracks in my thoracic spine. I must admit, it’s really satisfying. I also have been extending my upper back to get that satisfying crack in my thoracic spine. Could I potentially have an unhealthy crack addiction?
Thank you for this article! I love the connection between the spine and the core, how you need a strong core to stabilize your spine. I have always been interested in how the cracking effects the joints, I didn’t know it was about instability, and seems to make so much sense to me. Also excited to read about the multifidus. seems like a muscle that doesn’t get the attention it deserves!
Thank you Dawn! I am quite addicted to cracking my neck/cervical spine. The stretch I focus on now to help with this addiction is simple chin to chest with hands interlaced behind my head. I also enjoy bringing each ear to each shoulder with gentle pressure on the opposite ear and rotations with my chin. I feel these offer me greater range of motion and a release of tension. Would shoulder stand be recommenced or is that too intense? (i kinda love shoulder stand;)
Bring on the Multifidi! I should know way more about these muscles. I really appreciate your info and the wide-ranging responsibilities that I do several times thoughout the day. It’s about time I got on a first name basis with them.
I love multifidi!! There has been credible research that shows the multifidus is often atrophied in those with chronic low back pain. Bird-dogs are a safe and effective way to wake this muscle up again.
As the father of a 17 year old who loves to do this, now I can explain why it isn’t such a good idea – not that he’ll listen. Now to go see how to strengthen my multifidi which are, sadly, in much need of attention.
i do this regularly with my cervical spine? is that the same thing?
Dawn, I have never been able to self crack my lumbar spine but as I have gained more body awareness I have come to realize that I have been keeping a floppy spine. What I mean is I haven’t been carrying a healthy amount of tension in my core and throughout the day (running, lifting, working out) my lumbar spine as been flopping around unsupported. I think an important part of having a stabilized spine is strengthening your “Back Strap”. Here is a link to a video from one of the Gracie grandkids that I found helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mru33xLcDE
Very interesting, I always feel the need to crack and adjust my spine. If I dont I feel out of place and sometimes in pain. Your article has me thinking that I need to strengthen my multifidi!!! Great article Dawn! Miss you and Julian
I have been having issues with my back cracking all week. Working and exploring the multifidis muscle will be on my list of back muscles to strengthen. Thank you, for sharing your knowledge.
I’ve been experiencing a similar obsession lately because my lower back does compress due to a larger lordotic curve in my lumbar spine than what is normal. I had no idea that cracking your vertebrae created more instability in the joints. After you started strengthening your multifidi, did the urge to crack go away? This brings me to another thought, what is actually happening when you crack a joint and if you crack other places in your body I would assume that there is instability in those joints as well??
Thank you for the blog post 🙂
I loved reading this Dawn. Its good information to share with my clients. I have a handful of clients who love cracking their backs. Instictively I know this isn’t a good sign, and I discourage them from constantly doing so. But having more science behind the reasoning will be helpful. Looking forward to your other article!
Interesting that you are trying not to crack your spine since I am someone who needs to get an adjustment since my spine because it feels compressed. It often feels like an inversion or a chiropractic adjustment brings me back into alignment. Of course too much of one thing is not good and strengthening the muscles around the spine is a good idea.
Great post Dawn! Fascinating that they activate before any movement happens! Beautifully written!