While some find it satisfying to crack their knuckles, others might be disgusted by the noise of a joint being popped. We sat down with Giles Becker, MD, an orthopedic hand surgeon with the Banner - University Medicine Multispecialty Services Clinic in Tucson, Arizona, to learn if we’re doing more harm than good when we crack our joints.
Dr. Becker explained that all joints contain a lubricant, called synovial fluid, meant to reduce the wear and tear on our body’s cartilage. Forcing these joints apart, either intentionally or through everyday movements, stretches the joint and lowers the overall pressure inside. This low pressure causes gas bubbles to form in the synovial fluid, and a 2015 real-time medical imaging study of joint spaces proved that the “pop” you hear from a joint is actually the rapid accumulation of those bubbles.
“It’s thought that the reason you can’t pop the same joint again right away is due to it taking about 20 minutes or so for those joint bubbles to come back,” Dr. Becker explained.
Should I Be Worried?
You may remember hearing that cracking your knuckles would lead to arthritis, but Dr. Becker assured us that the popping sound your finger joints make is usually nothing to worry about. “People pop lots of joints,” said Becker. “Generally speaking it’s perfectly fine to crack joints, including your knuckles.” One study did suggest that knuckle cracking might lead to increased joint swelling and hand weakness, but this study has not been reproduced.
There are lots of other noises your joints might make besides the standard “pop!” sensation you typically get when cracking your knuckles or back. As you get older, your joints tend to make more creaking noises as cartilage begins to wear away through the normal aging process. Beyond that, “you can also get some noise from tendons flicking over bones,” explained Dr. Becker.
If any of your joint noises are followed by pain, stiffness or swelling, you should consider seeing your doctor to determine the root cause of your symptoms. “Joint cracking is usually a painless, pleasurable experience,” said Dr. Becker. “Any pain or discomfort could mean a problem with the joint, like arthritis, joint injury, or gout.”
Concerned about your joints? Set -up an appointment with a Banner Health physician and get your questions answered.