This was a question I was constantly asking myself several years ago. While attending college for my bachelor’s degree I was noticing my back would ALWAYS crack when I breathed in. Although it did not hurt, it was rather annoying and worrisome. It continued for over a year before I decided to find the reason behind it. I asked my family physician who had no clue why, and then I visited a chiropractor who didn’t know the cause either, and just wanted to crack my back. While receiving my Doctoral degree in Physical Therapy I learned a great deal about human anatomy, particularly (muscle & joints) which included the spine. I started to dive deeper and have found some of the MOST likely causes behind this problem.
First, I want to start by saying in MOST cases this problem is benign (not harmful) and is simply your spine and/or ribs cracking, similar to when you crack your knuckles. But if your back cracking is accompanied by any pain or other symptoms, then you should consult with your physician. I am going to discuss the main reasons for your back cracking when you breathe in, and ways you can fix it. Some of the best things I have done personally to help with my back cracking is stretching, foam rolling, and using an inversion table. I have posted the stretches and complete list of products I use at the bottom of this article.
Why Your Back Cracks When You Breathe In
The most common cause of your back cracking while breathing is a cavitation of the costovertebral joint. This can be due to underlying muscle tension. People often carry tons of tension in their upper back muscles causing their muscles to become tight. This can be contributing to your back cracking when you breathe in, because your rib cage is restricted and cannot move freely due to this muscle tightness.
When you take a deep breath this causes a large expansion of the rib cage. Like shown in the image above. So where the rib attaches to the spine (costovertebral joint) there can be a slight joint separation aka “cavitation” in the joint. Producing the cracking noise. This is similar to cracking your knuckles which causes a similar effect. This is one of the main reasons people experience a cracking noise when taking a deep breath. The reason may be due to you breathing more deeply which is usually referred to as deep “diaphragmatic breathing”, whereas other people may breath more shallow not causing such an expansion of their ribcage. For example, try breathing a few times with shallow breaths (not as deeply) and you will notice that your back may not crack with these more shallow breaths.
Another potential cause is arthritis of the spine. With arthritis, the normal joint surfaces become less smooth. This is due to the joint surface degenerating, and this can cause the joint to become more “bone” on “bone”. So in other words the bones do not have much cushion in between them with arthritis so you may hear these bones rubbing together. This is called “crepitus”. “Crepitus” usually is not harmful and is not a concern. In fact, this is a common phenomenon people experience as they age and is considered normal. But if crepitus is accompanied by pain, swelling, or other concerning symptoms, it may be an indication of severe arthritis or another medical condition.
3. Snapping Tendon/ligament
Another cause of a cracking noise when taking a deep breath could actually be a muscle, tendon, or ligament gliding/snapping over top of your bone. Sometimes joint cracking is often confused with the snapping sound made by tendons and/or ligaments. This is a common problem people may experience around their knee, but can also occur in the spine. If the muscles in your back are tight and shortened from sitting all the time, then this could be your issue. Tendons can make a popping noise when they quickly snap over a joint/bone. Ligaments can also make a popping noise when they quickly tighten while the joint is moving.
What To Do About Your Back Cracking
Now if you think you fit into one of the causes listed above, you may be wondering what you can do to stop this from occurring? I remember trying several different products such as foam rollers, decompression devices, etc. to get my back to stop cracking. And I’ve learned the DO’s and DONT’s which has stopped my back from cracking when I take a deep breath.
You need to stretch. You probably already know how beneficial stretching is for us, but it is super beneficial for our back muscles and spine. Especially when we are sitting the majority of the day which compresses our spine, and makes our back muscles tight. So when you go to take a deep breath after you’ve been sitting all day, this can cause the back cracking noise you may be hearing. If the cause is from a tight muscle or tendon snapping over a bone, then stretching may be your answer for relief. I have had several clients who noticed that their spine stopped cracking when they starting doing yoga & stretching their back everyday.
Some of the best stretches I have used to help my back from cracking:
Try these stretches 3 times a day for 30-60 seconds each time. Remember to breathe during the stretch!
Child’s pose stretch
Back extension stretch
You need to foam roll. This can be done with various devices such as foam rollers, yoga wheel, etc. I will provide a link for the ones I use at the bottom of this article.
I recommend foam rolling or using the yoga wheel for a few minutes several times per day to really focus on working deep into the back. The foam roller can help release muscle tension while also providing joint decompression. Start slowly and roll along your spine, this SHOULD feel great and provide a lot of relief! Your back may crack while foam rolling and this is normal. I foam roll all day every day.
You need to decompress. I recommend using an inversion table or a decompression device to really provide the entire spine a great decompression. The decompression will separate the spine (between each vertebrae), and will allow the joint to re-nourish with fresh blood and nutrients. This will help keep the joint surfaces healthy and smooth while providing a great stretch for the back muscles, tendons, and entire spine.
This is one of the best ways to stop your back from cracking when you take a deep breath. You need to use your decompression device or inversion table every day to really get the benefits, and to notice the difference. Start by using the inversion table or decompression device for 30-60 seconds a few times a day and see how you feel! Then you can start to slowly increase the time spent in the decompression device or inversion table.
The Products I Used to Solve this Problem
I use these daily to help keep my spine decompressed and to relieve the muscle tension in my back musculature. I contribute these products as one of the main reasons my back stopped from cracking when I breath in. If you can only afford one or two of these products I recommend a foam roller or inversion table, because these both are the best inexpensive products that can help solve this issue for you. I recommend that EVERYONE should own a foam roller for their house/office!