How To Move Without Pain

Joint Cracking - Bad or No Big Deal?

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

This article takes 6 minutes to read

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Spontaneous joint cracks (aka mobilizations to physical therapists) can be loud and strong but also can give a satisfying feeling. But, is it bad for your joints; not necessarily.

However, there are some things to consider when repeatedly cracking your joints – painful or not.
So will cracking your joints give you arthritis?
No.  This is a myth, started long ago – most likely from teachers or concerned parents that wanted their kids to stop cracking their knuckles.

Likely this myth started due to not liking the noise or fearing of what their future joints would look like – arthritis or otherwise.

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Joint pops/cracks that happen during movement that are quick and without provocation can happen for a couple different reasons. If the starting joint position is not in the correct alignment a noisy joint could occur due to the bones moving and aligning on each other correctly – yet this could cause pain or soreness even if fleeting.

Joint gas being stuck and then pushed out during movement is most likely what you are hearing and feeling.

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Nitrogen bubbles popping in our joints is what is actually making the sound. Many of our joints are surrounded by protective covering, known as a joint capsule. 

The capsules are filled with fluid (synovial fluid) to help lubricate them , like WD40 lubricates motor parts in a car engine. The fluid reduces joint friction and tissue stress, extending the life of our cartilages in our joints. When joints moves at a quick or high force, small nitrogen bubbles pop, releasing the gas and let out a crack or pop noise.

The nitrogen bubbles within the synovial fluid usually take 20 minutes to re-form in your joints before they can crack again, so this is a quick and done reaction. 

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When the gas releases the joint may feel looser for a short period of time, giving you a short lasting endorphin effect.

Endorphins primarily help you deal with stress and reduce feelings of pain throughout the body, and in this case – in joint pressure. But the release feeling is short lived, the nitrogen gas bubbles reform in the synovial fluid in about 20minutes – thus causing the sensation of a tight joint and the sensation to crack it again and again. 

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What is the ultimate problem with cracking joints? Each time a joint is purposely mobilized the joint and capsule undergo a quick overstretch, do that repeatedly and that part of the joint capsule will become looser than the rest of the joint.

 

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Or when thinking about the neck, if the popping joint is at the same level each time, that one is loosening over and over again and the joints above and below will feel tighter, causing compensatory and asymmetrical motions, throwing off joint mechanics, symmetry in movement and malicious muscle patterns. 

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