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6 Possible Reasons Your Elbow Keeps Popping or Clicking

Have you ever experienced a popping, cracking or locking sensation in your elbow? It can be strange and a bit alarming, especially if it happens repeatedly. 

But don’t worry just yet! Elbow popping and locking are surprisingly common symptoms that many of us have encountered at some point.  

Occasional, painless popping and clicking are usually harmless. But if you also experience pain, these could be signs of an elbow injury.

Read on to learn more about your elbow joint, six potential causes for elbow popping and whether or not you should see your health care provider.

The basics about your elbow joint

You use your elbow all the time, even more than you might think. Your elbow is involved whether you toss a ball, lift weights, shoot hoops or swim

The elbow is one of the largest joints in your body. It connects the two forearm bones to the upper arm bone through a system of ligaments, tendons and muscles. 

“It’s a hinge joint, so it allows you to bend and straighten your arm and helps with hand motion by allowing your forearm to rotate,” said Tyler Collins, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist with Banner Health. “Because it can move in many directions, the cartilage and ligaments can be put under a lot of stress and strain, which can injure or damage the elbow and cause clicking and popping sounds.”

What does elbow popping feel like?

“Most people will feel a catch at a certain position of the elbow, which may or may not be painful,” Dr. Collins said. “In more severe cases, the elbow can actually lock. In this case, it can make moving, bending or extending your arm difficult.”

Another symptom accompanying elbow popping is the feeling that your elbow is unstable or wobbly, like it might pop out of place if you move it.

Who is most affected by elbow popping symptoms?

Older people are more likely to experience elbow popping, especially if they have had many years of wear-and-tear on their elbow joint. 

Repetitive motion and overuse of the elbow joint can also cause elbow popping. 

6 reasons your elbow is popping, cracking or clicking

Many conditions can cause elbow popping. Here are some possible causes. 

1. Gas bubbles in your joints

In many cases, the popping sound you hear is harmless and is due to cavitation, a build-up of gases in your elbow. 

Your joints contain a lubricating liquid called synovial fluid, which is made up of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. As the joints are stretched, this creates space for tiny gas bubbles to form in the fluid. The popping noise is caused by the buildup and then the collapse of these bubbles. You may hear the same noise in your knuckles, ankles, back and toes.  

2. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease or a “wear and tear” arthritis. It occurs when the cartilage at the end of the bones is worn down or damaged. The cartilage, which cushions and protects the end of the bones, can wear away due to repetitive action or overuse. 

“One of the first signs of osteoarthritis is when you experience a loss in your elbow’s range of motion when you cannot extend or bend it fully,” Dr. Collins said. “If the cartilage wears down completely, you may also feel a grinding sensation when your bones move and rub together.”

3. Loose bodies

Sometimes, a small piece of bone or cartilage in the elbow can break loose or detach from its original position. It can be caused by osteoarthritis, an injury to the elbow or normal wear and tear. 

“Many times, these loose bodies will not cause any symptoms until one of them becomes stuck in the joints,” Dr. Collins said. “At this point, the elbow will feel as if it is locked or stuck and then click free when the loose body is dislodged.”

4. Plica

“A plica is an inflamed band of tissue which can get caught on bone or other tissue during motion,” Dr. Collins said. “It can be caused by a traumatic injury or from overuse.”

Although symptoms can vary, snapping usually occurs when the elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle. The popping usually hurts on the outside of the elbow and may be swollen. 

Medical providers refer to it as plica syndrome or elbow synovial fold syndrome if it becomes chronic. 

5. Ulnar nerve dislocation (subluxation)

The ulnar nerve helps you move your forearm, hand and certain fingers. When this nerve stretches and becomes inflamed, it can slip in and out of place behind the elbow. As a result, you may feel or hear a snap in the elbow. You might also have an intense pins-and-needles feeling in the fingers and hand.

6. Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis)

The name is misleading, as this painful condition can also affect other athletes and people in certain professions. Golfers, baseball and softball players and people who do jobs involving repetitive and constant use of arm and forearm rotation, like plumbing or painting, can develop this elbow pain.

Tennis elbow is a type of elbow tendonitis, an inflammation or micro-tearing of the connective tissue that connects the muscles in the forearm to the elbow. The main symptoms are popping and pain on the outside of the elbow. You may also have problems shaking hands, turning doorknobs and holding objects.

Should I see a health care provider?

If you hear your elbow click now and then and are not experiencing any pain or other symptoms, there is usually no need for concern. 

However, if your popping and locking are accompanied by swelling and pain, book an appointment with your health care provider or an orthopedic specialist. They can perform a physical exam and imaging tests, if necessary, to determine the cause of your elbow popping and recommend appropriate treatment. 

Treatment for elbow popping

Depending on the condition of your joint, most elbow popping is treated non-surgically. Your provider may recommend the following:

  • Rest: Make sure you stop doing the activity or sport that led to the injury.
  • Ice packs and NSAIDs: Use ice packs and over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin, to ease pain and swelling.
  • Physical therapy: This can help you learn proper techniques or exercises to help manage pops and clicks. It can also help you recover strength and range of motion.
  • Injections: Steroid injections can help reduce pain. Other effective injection therapy options include needle fenestration and platelet-rich plasma injections

[Also read “Got Joint Pain? Nine Tips for Safe Pain Management.”]

Surgery may be needed in extreme cases, but it is typically only recommended when less invasive treatments are ineffective. 


Remember that your elbow joint is needed in many everyday activities, from lifting objects to swimming. Although elbow popping is usually harmless, it can sometimes indicate a more serious underlying issue. 

If you experience any pain or discomfort along with the popping, or if it interferes with your daily activities, contact your health care provider. They can help you determine the cause of your symptoms and develop a plan to keep your elbow joint healthy and pain-free.

To find a Banner Health specialist, visit

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Orthopedics Sports Medicine