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Is It Normal for Joints to Pop, Creak and Crack?

January 20, 2018

Story at-a-glance

  • Unless you are experiencing pain and swelling, rest assured that most joint sounds are normal, not harmful
  • To date there is insufficient evidence linking joint sounds and arthritis
  • Exercise can not only significantly improve your joint function, but also lessen any joint pain you may be experiencing

By Dr. Mercola

If the popping or cracking sounds of your joints have ever given you cause for worry, you'll be relieved to know that it is normal for your joints to occasionally "talk to you." It is common to hear occasional joint sounds when you move in everyday ways, such as bending over to retrieve a dropped item or walking up or down stairs. Dr. William Shiel, chief editor and co-founder of the medical information website MedicineNet.com, says:1

"The symptom of joint cracking is described differently by different people, while nevertheless representing the same condition. Various descriptions for the same process include 'popping,' 'exploding,' 'noise,' 'snapping' and 'creaking' of a joint."

The most common and less serious joint popping that occurs most often is caused by knuckle cracking or a certain manner of bending or twisting the body to relieve pressure.

One cause for the sounds is the reality that your soft tissues, such as ligaments and tendons, frequently contact your bones and other tissues as you move. Pockets of nitrogen gas within your joint fluid, which help with joint lubrication and nutrition, can also be responsible for some of the sounds.

To date there is insufficient evidence linking joint sounds and arthritis. Furthermore, cracking your joints does not cause them to swell up or become arthritic. That said, unless you are experiencing pain and swelling, rest assured that most joint sounds generally are normal, not harmful.

What Are Your Joints Trying to Tell You?

Dr. Aman Dhawan, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, says, "Joint sounds are not really an indicator of health or lack of health."2

In terms of cracking your joints, there is insufficient evidence to support the belief that it causes cartilage to wear down or that it will permanently loosen the joints. "It may be irritating to the listener, but that's a separate issue," Dhawan notes. "There is really no evidence that it causes any damage."

As you may imagine, noisy joints can be of concern if the sounds are unusual or they are accompanied by acute pain and swelling. Some of the more serious joint conditions that may be indicated by a single episode of joint popping include a:4

If you suspect you may be dealing with any of the above conditions, it's time to see your doctor. Consistent pain or swelling, and even heat, may be a sign that something is seriously wrong. "As long as it's not painful, joint noise is OK," says Dr. Kim Stearns, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. "If there's pain, you may have an injury, then, that requires treatment."Fitness website GMB provides an excellent summary of what you need to remember when it comes to popping joints:6

Exercise: A Healthy Way to Make Your Joints Feel Great

If you regularly crack your joints as a means of gaining relief from stiffness or temporary pain and discomfort, you might consider exercise instead. Exercise can not only significantly improve your joint function, but also lessen any joint pain you may be experiencing.

Be advised that there is no evidence to support the belief that exercise is detrimental to your joints. The myth that you can "wear down" your knees, for example, is just that, a myth. Your body is designed to tolerate average levels of exercise and your normal activities of daily living.

Even if you maintain a healthy weight, exercise can have a positive impact on your joints. While low-impact cardio exercise such as bicycling, swimming or using an elliptical machine can boost joint health, taking a walk around the block is also beneficial, especially if you are just starting or getting back to exercise.

According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise is especially crucial if you have arthritis. Exercise not only increases flexibility and strength, but also reduces joint pain and fatigue. Even moderate exercise can soothe weary joints and give you a sense of control over your arthritis pain and discomfort. Some of the benefits you'll receive from exercise include:7

 

Strengthening the muscles around your joints

Helping you control your weight

Maintaining bone strength

Enhancing your quality of life

Having more energy to get through the day

Improving your balance

Making it easier to get a good night's sleep

Though you may think exercise will aggravate your joint pain and stiffness, that's typically not the case. In fact, the opposite is true: Lack of exercise can make your joints even more painful and stiff. That's because keeping your muscles and surrounding tissue strong is crucial to maintaining support for your bones. The absence of exercise weakens those supporting muscles, creating more stress on your joints.

A good way to avoid creaking joints is to get up and move as much as possible during the day, says Stearns: "We say motion is lotion — the more you move, the more your body lubricates itself. When you've been sitting or lying around, fluid in the joints doesn't move. The more active you are, the more your joints lubricate themselves."

Setting a goal of taking 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day, which is just over 3 to 5 miles, or 6 to 9 kilometers, keeps your focus on getting more movement in your life. If possible, you should add this over and above your existing fitness regimen. If it's too overwhelming to think of doing anything more than walking, start there. You can always add more activity later.

In addition to easing joint pain, exercise can help improve your mood, increase your energy levels and promote flexibility. ​In time, you will notice positive changes that might cause you to wonder why you didn't take up exercise sooner.

Are There Special Considerations for Exercising With Joint Pain?

If you have joint pain, there are a few factors to consider with respect to exercise. Particularly if your pain worsens with movement, you want to take care to not strain a significantly unstable joint. Pain during movement is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms of osteoarthritis.

If you've already developed knee osteoarthritis, you'll most certainly want to incorporate exercises that strengthen the quadriceps muscle at the front of your thigh. Instead of running or other high-impact exercise, you will more likely enjoy and benefit from non-weight-bearing exercises such as bicycling or swimming.

Should you experience pain for more than one hour after exercising, you either need to slow down or choose a different form of exercise. As needed, you may want to work with a physical therapist or qualified personal trainer who can help develop a safe set of activities for you. Whatever you choose, be sure your program includes a range of activities. I recommend core training, high-intensity cardio, stretching and weight training. My favorite exercise is peak fitness, and this program can be safely used by nearly everyone.

What Role Do Diet and Weight Loss Play in Your Joint Health?

Because diet accounts for about 80 percent of the health benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle, it makes sense to look to your diet with respect to joint health. I've said it many times before — the best diet is one that involves eating REAL FOOD.

I recommend replacing processed foods with whole, organic foods as much as you can. It is especially important to avoid processed vegetable oils and sugars. Personally, I believe the oils are far more toxic, especially the types used to prepare convenience and fast foods.

You simply must have a regular source of high-quality, unprocessed fats if you hope to be healthy. Along those lines, you should carefully monitor your omega-6 to omega-3 balance, making sure you intake enough healthy fish or a fish oil supplement for your omega-3s.

Notably, researchers found that 300 mg of krill oil per day significantly reduced inflammation, pain, stiffness and functional impairment after just seven days, and even more profoundly after 14 days.9 To help you get started, I suggest following my complimentary Optimized Nutrition Plan, which guides you step-by-step from the beginner stage to the advanced level. 

If you are overweight, consider pairing exercise with a healthy diet to bring some relief to your joints. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),10 arthritis rates are nearly double for obese people compared to those who are normal weight. This is mainly due to the increased pressure extra weight puts on your joints.

Notably, a JAMA study11 revealed that overweight and obese adults with knee osteoarthritis who followed an intensive diet and exercise program experienced less pain and better function than those who pursued just diet or exercise alone. Dhawan agrees that any loss of weight will translate into tremendous improvements in your joint pain and function:12

"There is good data to support getting rid of excess weight because it does improve pain in the joints of the lower extremities, as well as decreases your risk of getting arthritis, or of having it progress. The joints carry the weight of our bodies, so the less stress you put on them, the longer they will stay healthy."

Remember, even the smallest of positive changes you make in your eating habits will eventually yield results, if you stick with it. Set small goals and keep at it. Soon you will be on your way to the healthier, more active lifestyle that you want and need.

Cracking Your Knuckles Is Not Likely to Lead to Arthritis

As you may know, your joints, including those in your knuckles, are surrounded by a membrane called the synovial membrane. It forms a capsule around the ends of your bones and contains synovial fluid. Synovial fluid acts as a lubricant and shock absorber so your bones don't grind together when you move.

If you have osteoarthritis, the cartilage within your joints is progressively being damaged, and the synovial fluid is typically reduced as well. The pain and joint stiffness that you feel is a result of your bones starting to come in to contact with each other as cartilage and synovial fluid diminishes. It's often thought that cracking your joints would be dangerous for people with osteoarthritis, or perhaps could even lead to degenerative conditions.

If you continually crack your knuckles, the synovial membrane and the surrounding ligaments will loosen, making it easier and easier for your joints to crack. However, to date, research has not shown a correlation between knuckle cracking and osteoarthritis in your hands. In a study of more than 200 people, the prevalence of osteoarthritis in any joint was similar among those who cracked knuckles and those who did not.13 The authors stated:

"… [I]n these cohorts of persons aged 50 to 89 years, a history of habitual KC [knuckle cracking] — including the total duration and total cumulative exposure to KC — does not seem to be a risk factor for hand OA [osteoarthritis]."

According to Stearns, despite what your mom said, you're not going to make your knuckles too big or develop arthritis by cracking them.14 "The belief that cracking your knuckles is bad for your joints is an old wives' tale. My mother used to tell me don't crack your knuckles, but sorry, Mom, there's no science to say it's bad for your joints."

In many cases, cracking your knuckles becomes a habit that can be difficult to break. One study even suggested that the movement offers a sort of "therapeutic release." Some chronic knuckle crackers may regard the habit as a form of stress relief. Personally, however, I don't think it's wise to crack your joints on a regular basis, mainly because self-manipulation may lead to lax ligaments. Moreover, I believe you should treat your body gently and lovingly.

For those reasons, as well as the reality that it can be annoying to others, I recommend you choose a form of stress relief other than knuckle cracking. So, the next time you hear that familiar knee pop when you stand up, or gentle neck crack when you turn your head to one side, remember that most joint sounds are normal and not a cause for concern. Exercising regularly, as well as maintaining a healthy diet and weight, will go a long way toward giving your joints all the care and support they need.

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Sources and References

  • 1, 4 MedicineNet.com March 25, 2015
  • 2, 3, 12 MedicineNet.com January 27, 2017
  • 5, 8, 14 Cleveland Clinic May 31, 2016
  • 6 GMB Fitness October 28, 2013
  • 7 Mayo Clinic October 26, 2016
  • 9 J Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Feb; 26(1): 39-48
  • 10 CDC November 9, 2016
  • 11 JAMA, September 25, 2013; 310(12): 1273-1263
  • 13 Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, March-April 2011; 24(2): 169-174
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