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Cracking joints

Knuckle Cracking: Dangerous or Just Annoying? 

Cracking knuckles or other joints – from your fingers to your neck and back – can become a habit that’s hard to break. If it’s your habit, you’ve probably heard at least once that this habit can cause arthritis, a neck injury, or worse. But is any of that actually true?

Let’s take a look at a few of the myths and facts about cracking or “popping” joints:

Cracking your knuckles can injure your hands. 

MYTH:  In fact, cracking the knuckles is very likely harmless. There have been occasional reports of dislocations or tendon injuries from overly aggressive cracking, but these problems seem to be the exception rather than the rule. 

The “cracking” noise that knuckles make is produced by increasing the space between finger joints, causing gas bubbles in the joint fluid to collapse or burst. It’s a bit like blowing up a balloon and then stretching it until it pops.

It’s normal for joints to crack on their own.

FACT:  There’s typically a space in every joint – the point where any two bones meet – that will allow the bones to glide over each other as your body moves. The cartilage inside the space, which serves as a lubricant, often contains air bubbles that may pop during routine movements.  You may have noticed that once a joint pops, it won’t pop or crack again right away. Recent imaging studies and mathematical modeling suggest this is because the bubbles in the fluid take time to naturally reaccumulate.  

Another source of noise in a joint is from the tendons that connect muscles to the bones. Everyone’s anatomy is a bit different, so some people may have bones that stick out a little more than others. When the tendons move over these bumpy areas, they can create a snapping sound. These are normal noises that your body makes. As long as they’re not causing pain, there’s no need for concern.

Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis.

MYTH:  This is a very common myth, but there is no scientific basis to support it. Studies show that people who crack their knuckles have the same rates of arthritis as people who don’t. Up to 54% of people crack their knuckles. Some like the sound or the way it feels. Others find that it helps relieve stress or anxiety. For some people, it can become a habit.

While it may be annoying for others to hear, there’s no medical reason to stop. However, if it’s a habit you’d like to break, there are a few suggested ways to stop:  

  • Keep your hands busy with stress balls or fidget toys
  • Manage stress and anxiety with exercise, yoga, or meditation
  • Recognize when you are about to crack your knuckles and stop yourself before you do it

Your joints may make more noise as you age.

FACT: It’s true that as you get older, deterioration of the cartilage between your joints due to wear and tear can lead to grinding or crunching noise when you move. This isn’t typical knuckle popping, though. It’s most likely the start of arthritis. As the cartilage between joints wears down with age, bones rub against each other to create the grinding noise, as well as pain and swelling. 

Cracking your neck or back is perfectly safe.

MYTH:  While cracking the knuckles in your hands is a relatively harmless habit, your spine is a different story. Because the vertebrae that form your spine serve to protect your spinal cord, any wrong movement could cause damage to the spinal cord or nerves. 

This is true whether you’re doing the cracking yourself or having your spine adjusted by a chiropractor. Because these specialists focus on adjusting spinal joints with their hands or instruments, be sure you select a trained and licensed professional.

Cracking joints shouldn’t cause pain or swelling.

FACT:  If the joints you routinely crack suddenly become painful or swollen, it’s time to talk to your doctor, starting with your primary care provider to assess your symptoms.

See a specialist at DOC Orthopaedics

If you’ve started to notice pain or swelling in your hands or other joints that routinely crack or pop, it may be time to discuss your options with one of the specialists at DOC Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. 

Since 1972, these specialists have been committed to providing exceptional orthopaedic care through innovative techniques, quality services, patient communication and education. With specialties ranging from general orthopaedics and physical therapy to sports medicine and more, the doctors at DOC Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine can provide local expert guidance on next steps for your overall joint care. Click here to schedule an appointment today.

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