Why do my joints pop?

It is common for people to crack their knuckles or even their back intentionally because they find that it feels good or allows them to move more freely.  Cracks, pops, and other funky noises also occur while someone is lifting weights at the gym, reaching over their head, or just walking down the street.  What are these noises coming from your joints?  Are they good or are they bad for you?  Can you get arthritis in your hands if you crack your knuckles a lot?

When your joints crack and pop, this is referred to as a cavitation in medical jargon.  What is happening is that your joints are being expanded, as the space within the joint is increased, the pressure within the joint drops.  Due to this pressure drop carbon dioxide is released and this release of gas is what creates the crack or pop that you hear when say you crack your knuckles.  These sounds can also be created by ligaments or tendons quickly snapping over bone as does happen in someone with ‘snapping hip’.  With snapping hip, the iliotibial band (a tendon) or tensor fascia latae muscle on the side of your hip snaps over the femur creating a snap or popping sound.  The reason this muscle or tendon snaps over the hip is generally because they are too tight.  With proper stretching or use of a foam roller this sound can generally be resolved.  Another possible reason your joints could be making sounds is due to increased ligament laxity.  Some people have inherently looser ligaments than others.  Ligaments provide passive structural support for our joints whereas muscles provide active support for our joints.  We can control muscles, but cannot control ligaments.  A person with increased ligament laxity or looseness makes their joints more susceptible to increased motion within joint and therefore increased ability to expand, release gas, and make a sound.


If these noises that you hear coming from your joints are not painful, then they aren’t anything to be concerned about.  However, if these noises are accompanied with pain then it is indicative of an injury or damage to the joint.  As we age the cartilage surrounding our bones that allows our joints to move smoothly can deteriorate from wear and tear or trauma.  If the bones rub together they will create noises and eventually lead to osteoarthritis.  Noises can also come from injuries within a joint such as the meniscus within the knee or labrum within the shoulder and hip.  If these structures are injured, they will create noise and pain when they are moved.  So, are the noises you hear coming from your joints bad?  They are only bad if they are painful.

A common question among frequent “knuckle crackers” is if they crack their joints will they get arthritis in their hands?  The answer is not a clear-cut yes or no and here’s why.  As previously mentioned, when we purposely crack our knuckles we are expanding the joint, releasing gas within the joint, which in turn creates a cracking sound.  After a joint is cracked/popped, that joint is loose since the joint was expanded.  The crack/pop from the expanded joint creates more motion, but in people who do not need this motion it creates increased laxity or looseness in that joint.  With increased looseness a joint is susceptible to abnormal forces and abnormal wear and tear within a joint.  These abnormal forces can cause the bones to rub together, which can eventually lead to arthritis.  However, the looseness effect created by the cracking of one’s knuckles is not long lasting as the joint space returns to its original size within 15 minutes.  If you are a frequent knuckle cracker it does not mean you will get arthritis from cracking your knuckles, but you could be making the joints more susceptible to abnormal wear and tear that can eventually lead to arthritis.  As you can see, the answer to this question is not black or white but quite gray.

I would like to differentiate between the sounds coming from our joints in regular day to day life versus the forced cracks/pops we create by say cracking our knuckles or our neck.  The normal day to day cracks and pops are harmless as mentioned previously unless accompanied with pain.  However, the forced cracks are potentially harmful.  When you crack your neck or knuckles or any joints purposefully you are taking that joint to it end range of motion and then forcing it beyond that motion.  Forcing a joint beyond its range of motion will fundamentally create looseness within that joint with or without a pop or crack.  Not only will it create looseness momentarily, but also it will stretch the surrounding ligaments beyond their threshold of motion and possibly lead to injury and/or chronic looseness.  This chronic looseness and laxity within the joint can in turn lead to osteoarthritis of that joint.

What can you do to makes these cracks occur less often?  We know the cracks occur since the joint is expanded and therefore looser, so we must make the structures supporting the joint stronger and more stable.  Since we cannot control ligaments and the passive support system of our joints, we cannot do anything to make them tighter, besides surgery, or even stronger.  However, we can control the strength of the muscles surrounding a joint so making them stronger will make the joint more stable and lead to less cracks.  When strengthening muscles surrounding a joint it is important to remember balance.  For example, people who do a lot of bench press make still experience a lot of cracks and pops even though they are strengthening their pectoral muscles, which support and affect the movement of the shoulder.  These people most likely have very weak rotator cuff muscles and muscles that perform external rotation of the shoulder, the action directly opposite of the pectoral muscles which perform internal rotation.  In these people there is an imbalance of strength of the muscles supporting the shoulder consequently they will still have cracks and pops.  Strengthening all of the muscles surrounding a joint  equally will result in less cracks and pops coming from that joint.

If you are experiencing pain when your joints crack or pop then come into Total Performance Physical Therapy to have your condition evaluated.


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