A common question many patients ask is “My (insert joint here) always pops. Is this bad?” The first thing I would ask in response to this is: Is it painful, limiting your mobility, or happening with every rep?” If the answer is no to all of these, then there is no reason to be concerned. Common areas for joint noises are the knees, hips, elbows, ankles, and shoulders. Dr. Stearns, orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, states, “Creaking and snapping joints might be annoying, but they usually are nothing to worry about...It’s a normal, common occurrence.” Dr. Stearns notes that these noises are especially common in the shoulders and knees because of all the moving parts throughout these joints.
The popping, clicking, or cracking noises that joints are called crepitus. Crepitus is common upon waking up in the morning (ankles, hips, and knees clicking as you walk from bed to the bathroom) and is also the same noise heard when you crack your knuckles. What causes crepitus? Is it going to give me arthritis? What if my noisy joint is painful? Below we will delve into the answers to these questions.
Why do my knees/ankles/hips/shoulders pop?
There are two main causes for non-painful joint noises, or crepitus.The first reason could be from air bubbles that form in the joint spaces, particularly in areas where there is fluid separating bones, like the knee, ankle, shoulder, hip, and elbow.
The second reason for non-painful joint noises could be from tendons, ligaments, and/or bones rubbing together, stretching, or releasing as you move. No, this is not a sign of “wear and tear” or an indication that you should stop moving in whatever way caused the noise. Again, if occurring without pain, noisy joints are totally normal.
Popping sounds in the joints tend to be common in people who are hypermobile, meaning they can reach greater range of motion (ROM) than the average person, (think gymnasts). This is due to the increased ROM allowing more space for air cavities and bubbles to form and for structures within the joint to rub against each other.
Is it bad to pop your knuckles?
When it comes to noisy joints, people commonly wonder if cracking your knuckles is bad for your fingers and hands. It seems as if every parent has told their kids, “stop cracking your knuckles; that will give you arthritis.” Is there any truth to this? One study looked at 215 people aged 50-89 and found that “a history of habitual knuckle cracking—including the total duration and total cumulative exposure—does not seem to be a risk factor for hand osteoarthritis” (DeWeber 2011).
Another researcher, Dr. Unger, was so dedicated to figure out the relationship between arthritis and knuckle cracking that he cracked the knuckles on one hand and not the other for 50 years. During this time, he took x-rays often and found he had no greater incidence or risk for arthritis in one hand vs. the other. Thus, it seems that, similar to pain-free popping noises in the joints, popping your knuckles is entirely harmless.
Is there a way to stop my joints from popping?
Even though the popping or clicking is harmless, many people find the noises annoying. One of the best ways to minimize the noises in the joints is to MOVE. The phrase “motion is lotion” holds true here, as movement can help lubricate the joints. Ever noticed how your joints are often more noisy in the morning? This is likely due to the body having minimal movement during the hours you were asleep. Besides general movement, some other ways to minimize the noises would be:
Working through full ranges of motion
When should I be concerned about my noisy joints?
There are a few instances where noisy joints may be a reason for concern. If the clicking or popping is causing pain, happens with every single rep, or is minimizing mobility then it may be wise to see a physical therapist.
Here at Prime, we perform thorough evaluations to assess what the cause for an issue may be. Whether it is a simultaneous pinch and pop in your shoulder or a limited range of motion through your squat coupled with a painful pop in the knee, our therapists are dedicated to getting to the root of your injury and resolving it. If you are experiencing pain accompanied with joint noises, an initial assessment by a P.T. could be beneficial. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an initial evaluation.