Ever hear that cracking your knuckles can cause arthritis? Wondering if you should be worried about a popping/clicking noise coming from your joints?
If your breakfast and your joints are making the same kind of noises, this article will get you up to speed on why joints pop, what it means if your fingers crack often, and what to look for to determine if you should talk to a doctor.
In this post we’ll go over the likely causes of cracking joints, what it means, and what, if anything, you should do about it.
We will go into all of this in more detail below but the fundamental points are:
- If the noise isn’t accompanied by pain, don’t worry too much. If there is consistent pain though, go get it checked out!
- If it happens from normal movement, it’s probably not a bad thing.
- However, it’s probably not a good idea to continually force that sound (i.e. repetitive cracking of knuckles), even if it produces a “good sensation.”
- Keep track of how your body feels (and sounds!) as you progress in your exercise regimen.
- There’s nothing wrong with moving and stretching out, just don’t be forceful or overdo it, especially if you aren’t warmed up.
What Are Joint Noises, Anyway?
Perhaps the most common sound that people think of when they talk about how their body “pops,” is cavitation. The traditional explanation for the sound of “knuckles cracking” is the change in pressure of the synovial fluid in a joint.
A joint capsule surrounds all synovial joints and is a “closed” system filled with fluid, so any deformation would cause a change in pressure. Natural pockets of gas within the joint form a bubble and quickly collapses, causing the sound. This is why you can’t crack your knuckles again immediately after you have done it once. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the gas to reabsorb.
Any synovial joint from your knuckles, elbows, spinal joints, and down to your ankles, can be “popped.”
As for the other sounds, repetitive “clicks” could be connective tissue out of its proper alignment or cartilaginous tissue damage such as torn meniscal flaps or other chondral tissue damage. It could also be a large nerve out of alignment as well. A common example is the ulnar nerve (inside of the elbow), which slips in/out of the groove when you bend and straighten the elbow.
This is pretty common and isn’t too much of a concern, especially if there is no pain.
I’ve had patients tell me of other kinds of popping and “ripping” that occurs suddenly, with pain and subsequent swelling and bruising. This is probably scar tissue tearing, and depending on the situation it can be beneficial or problematic.
The “clunk” sound is an interesting phenomenon. This is often felt as a shift, which may or may not accompany the louder pop. It’s often described as distinct from the “regular pop” that people describe, but it actually may be the same phenomenon, just louder and more noticeable.
It might be a true subluxation, in which the joint is off axis, and a particular movement shifts it back on axis. If this is true, than these sounds occur in what I would classify as unstable joints and the ones most in need of exercise training to strengthen and improve motor control.
This happens often in people that have repeated injuries in one area, or long-term chronic issues.
Why Does it Feel Good When a Joint Pops?
(Beware, lots of big words ahead).
Like we mentioned above, when one of your joints is stretched beyond a certain point, the joint capsule is distended and you can hear a pop or clunk.
This stretch on the capsule stimulates Type III joint mechanoreceptors which cause a relaxation of surrounding muscles around the joint. So, if you had sensations of feeling stiff and tight, the ease and looseness you feel after the pop is probably because of this phenomenon.
Another theory is that natural painkillers (endogenous opiates) are released, thus the good feeling after someone cracks your back. These can be quite addictive and this is why many people keep cracking their back or keep going to see someone that will do it for them.
Whoa. That was a lot of technical jargon – it’s okay though, we’re done with that and you handled it like a champ.
Is Knuckle Cracking Bad for You?
A very relevant question is whether this should be repeated, or even performed at all.
The usual warnings condemn your joints to arthritis, instability, or other such damage. Well, if it happens with regular movement and is not forced, it’s a moot point. It’s not controllable, and most likely you aren’t doing yourself any damage.
However, repeated high force motions may not be the best thing to do to yourself.
So don’t do that.
It is a very big debate whether repetitive cracking of normal joints leads to damage and dysfunction, and the scientific research isn’t conclusive at all. But it is plausible to think that continual overstretching at the joint can impair motor control, and it is well known that repetitive abnormal stretching can lead to increased inflammation.
Another common phenomenon is for these noises to change over a period of time.
They can become louder, more frequent, less frequent, be accompanied by pain, or suddenly become pain free. This is probably because angles of pull and axes of motion can change with increased/decreased muscle strength and flexibility, and with other physical body tissue changes.
It’s very common for noises to appear and disappear during the course of an exercise program as your body changes and adapts to the activities.
Three Things You Should Remember About Popping Joints
- Most noises from normal movement are normal and fine. What’s not normal and fine is if this happens with pain.
- Don’t force the “pop” to happen. Even if it likely won’t cause arthritis, it should be common sense not to twist your neck and back forcefully!
- These sounds can change as you continue in your training and exercise. Keep an eye on what happens, either as it improves or gets worse. You’ll be able to see if changes in your program affect this over time.
Free Your Body of Those “Pops”
As you continue to move and exercise and change your body over time, you’ll notice changes in strength, flexibility, and coordination will bring other developments as well.
With new awareness you may feel that your clicking shoulder doesn’t do that anymore, or your crunchy knees don’t crunch any longer. These positive changes only tend to happen if we step outside of our normal exercise routines and get moving in a different way.
Moving in the same patterns over and over again could have you over-stressing your joints and tendons. This may lead occasional clicking to turn into a consistently painful issue.
It’s great to exercise regularly and there’s probably no preventative medicine better than that, but don’t turn your training into an unbending and unadaptable routine. Invest time in new and unusual movements and your body will thank you for it.
If you’d like to learn more about the most common causes of physical restriction and pain, you should sign up for our guide: “Why It Hurts, How to Fix It.”
This guide will show you how the various parts of your body work, and actionable steps you can take to take care of your body.