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man stretching cracking his knuckles

Should you crack your joints?

man stretching cracking his knuckles

We’ve all heard the old wives’ tale that cracking your knuckles or popping your joints will cause arthritis. But is it true? The Roper St. Francis Healthcare orthopaedic team weighs in on this urban legend — and when it’s time to see a joint expert.

Joint cracking: Why does it happen?

Whether it’s a nervous habit or a way to relieve pressure, cracking joints is second nature to many of us. But what causes our joints to pop? It turns out the reasons are relatively common.

  • Release of nitrogen gas bubbles within the joints: It’s a natural body function — even though it sounds slightly alarming! Nitrogen gas bubbles naturally accrue in our joints over time, and “cavitation” is the popping of those gas bubbles. Nitrogen gas bubbles are the most common cause of joint popping. 
  • Ligament tightness and stretching: Our ligaments and muscles typically move smoothly over our joints, but if those ligaments are either too tight or too loose, they can cause the joints to feel like they’re popping. This feeling occurs most frequently with ankles, hips and knee joints and is typically painless.
  • Osteoarthritic rubbing of joints: Osteoarthritis causes the bone-protecting cartilage to wear down over time, resulting in joint movement that is less fluid and smooth. The cartilage can deteriorate to the point where the joint rubs bone on bone without the cartilage cushion, causing painful popping, grinding and even bone spurs.

Is joint cracking dangerous?

Now that we understand why our joints pop, it’s important to know the impact on our health. Does cracking your joints cause arthritis? The short answer: no, it does not.

“Most of the time, joint popping and cracking is completely harmless — and even natural,” says Sawyer Langston, a PA-C in Orthopaedic Surgery at Roper St. Francis Healthcare. “However, if you experience pain associated with the popping and cracking, this could be due to an underlying condition that should be evaluated by an orthopedist.”

Painful joint popping can signify advancing osteoarthritis, tendinitis or bursitis, while painful tendon popping can be an indicator of increasing inflammation. To avoid further injury or a tendon rupture, Ms. Langston recommends seeing an orthopaedic expert immediately.

Boost your joint health

To keep your joints in tip-top shape, take a few proactive steps to help maintain your joint health:

  • ● Create a nutrient-rich diet: The best building blocks for your joints and tendons are the nutrients you can find in foods like salmon, leafy greens and calcium-rich dairy options. If you’re unsure where to start, your doctor may be able to recommend a dietitian or wellness service to get you on a more nutritious path. 
  • ● Get moving: Exercise is the best medicine for creaky joints. Take a walk, do some stretches and try to get your blood pumping for at least 20 minutes a day.
  • ● Talk to your doctor about vitamins and supplements: If you have arthritis, certain supplements might be helpful to maintain your joint health. Talk to your doctor about the potential benefits of adding a multivitamin or supplement to boost your joint health.

Remember the threshold rule: No medical intervention is needed if your joint cracking and popping isn’t impacting your daily activities. However, if you’re in pain — it’s time to take action.

“If your cracking, popping or snapping sounds are painful or causing swelling, schedule an appointment with an orthopedist,” says Ms. Langston. “Our team is here to help you protect and care for your joints at every stage of life.”

Find a doctor

For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our orthopaedic experts, please call (843) 402-CARE or visit rsfh.com.


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