Ask LH: Is It Bad If I Crack My Knuckles Or Other Joints?

Is It Bad If I Crack My Knuckles or Other Joints?

Dear Lifehacker, Every now and then I crack my knuckles and sometimes my other joints creak and pop too. I'm not even that old, really! Should I be concerned? Are my noisy joints bad? Thanks, Creaky

Dear Creaky,

Cracking sounds in your joints can definitely sound — if not feel — alarming. It's probably happened to all of us, though, whether from cracking knuckles on purpose or just hearing popping sounds when stretching. I talked to a few medical experts to find out what's going on and whether or not all this noise is a sign of a medical issue. Here's what they said.

It's Usually Harmless

The common misconception that cracking your joints will cause arthritis is just that — a misconception. Dr Levi Harrison, an orthopedic surgeon and the author of The Art of Fitness, says he's often asked this question. He explains:

Commonly, joints make an audible cracking sound when the joint is stretched or manipulated due to gas inside the joint fluid or synovial fluid. Common gases in the joint are O2 (Oxygen) and N (Nitrogen). When you flex and stretch your fingers in order to "crack your knuckles", the capsule around the joint which contains this gas filled fluid causes the bubbles to burst which causes that sound. The sound may be loud or dull. Often, you have to wait a period of time before the sound can be heard again, if you manipulate the joint. It takes time for the gas bubbles to reform in the joint.

Dr Michael Haley, owner of Agape Chiropractic, offers a few more insights — and strange medical terms (joint mice? crepitus?!) that describe the issue:

Sometimes the sounds are coming from muscle bellies. Other times they are coming from the deeper joint structures - tendons, ligaments, and discs. Sometimes the sounds aren't "cracking sounds" at all, but rather, inflammation in the joints that is "squishing around" with movement. These are the noises someone might hear continuously when they turn their heads side to side. Ideally, turning your head does not make any noise. Joint mice may contribute to the sounds. These sounds are collectively usually referred to as "crepitus".

Based on clinical experience, it seems that tension builds up and allows for the joints to "crack" or release. Inactivity seems to increase the need... whereas frequent movement and stretching seems to not only decrease the need, but also even the possibility of of cracking the joints.

An interesting observation is that humans learn to disobey their need for movement. Cats and dogs seem to stretch out their bodies, with an emphasis on their spines, after every period of inactivity. Kids seem to stretch after inactivity too. But adults tend to get up and go about their sedentary days. No wonder their joints crack... or need cracking…

In other words, it's a good idea to fit more movement into your day, if you're not already doing so.

When You Might Want To Consult A Doctor

Those assurances aside, there are times where cracking joints are more ominous. If you experience any pain with the cracking, it could be a sign of a medical problem. Dr Harrison says:

Individuals who have painful grinding and creaking joints that started after an injury or trauma to their joints may have arthritis. This is not a good thing. Arthritis occurs when the protective cartilage lining of a joint has been damaged or eroded. This can occur from an injury, age, or an even inflammatory condition like rheumatoid arthritis.

If you have had an injury, for example to your hips or knee and experience significant hip and or knee pain, as well as popping of your joints, you may have arthritis in these areas. I recommend an evaluation by your healthcare practitioner. After an appropriate history and physical exam, they may order the necessary radiographic tests to evaluate the joint. Arthritis is common and pain with creaking and popping in any joint warrants proper evaluation by your doctor.

In the absence of pain, though, you probably don't have to worry. Dr. Harrison doesn't recommend cracking your knuckles, neck, or anything else, but it's still probably harmless. Consider this research noted by Dr. Amy Baxter, CEO of MMJ Labs (which makes a really cool pain blocker, Buzzy):

One really fun paper was what we call an "n of 1" study - some guy (Dr. DL Unger) decided to only crack one hand his whole life, and see what happened. He then published the result. Bottom line: the cracked knuckle was bigger, but none the worse for wear.

I also asked my sister, a family physician, about this, and she said she gets this question a lot — strangely from young teenage patients. Her advice? It's probably nothing — but if it bothers you, stop cracking your knuckles or neck. So there you go.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    i dont need to stretch my fingers to crack them, they just crack all the bloody time.

    i open my left hand, crack crack crack, i close it again, and the same thing...

      I'm the opposite. I very rarely, if ever, crack my knuckles or any other joint, either deliberately or otherwise. In fact I don't even know *how* to crack my knuckles. They don't crack by themselves but I've never felt the need to do it.

      The only joint that cracks for me sometimes is my knee, and sometimes one of the joints in my right foot, and only after sleeping. Fingers, neck, wrists, ankles etc don't crack at all. I'm wondering if there's something wrong with me...

      Last edited 06/01/14 11:28 am

      This used to happen to my old man's knees when I was a kid, and later on he got gout. I've always wondered if there was any causation going on there.

      Last edited 07/01/14 11:00 pm

    I wouldn't trust a thing a Chiropractor had to say about anything. It's a Quack Science. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/reference/chiropractic/

    It's funny... I've done a LOT of reading about this, and the only thing I can really determine is that there may be some truth in that people who crack their knuckles regularly end up with decreased grip strength and arthritis, but it's not because they crack their knuckles... it's because they perform the kind of activities which build up the need to crack their knuckles, which ALSO lead to arthritis/decreased grip strength.

    "strangely from young teenage patients" - not strange at all in my opinion! My parents constantly told (and still tell) me to "Stop cracking your knuckles! It gives you arthritis!". I know more young people who crack their knuckles/other joints on purpose than older adults.

      My older brother used to do it constantly when we were teenagers. At the time I used to think it was just the annoyance factor that he enjoyed, but now I wonder if it had something to do with relieving some discomfort associated with the growing process. But he was pretty bloody annoying anyway, so I dunno.

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