Cracking and Popping Joints: Should you be concerned?
Particularly as we age, many of us notice our joints becoming noisier. You know, that awful cracking sound your knees make as you squat down to pick up your dog, or the “pop” you hear every time you move your ankle? These sounds can be alarming, and are often a topic of discussion between patients and their doctors or physical therapists.
What causes cracking or popping of the joints?
There are a few reasons why your joints may start making noises as you move. Joint sounds that come and go can be caused by temporary issues like muscle tightness. Tight muscles can cause tendons to rub on and around bones, which can sound like a “soft snapping”1. A more chronic joint-related sound can be caused by the cartilage in between our joints naturally deteriorating as we age. This cartilage serves as a buffer between rough surfaces, and as the cartilage shrinks, rough surfaces can more easily rub against each other, which can create “cracking” sounds.1 The popping sound created by cracking your knuckles is caused by nitrogen bubbles in the joint capsule that “pop” as you move, which can also occur in most other joints in your body. And despite common misconception, cracking your knuckles will not make them too big or cause you to develop arthritis…sorry, Mom.
Most of the time, the sounds our joints make are actually nothing to worry about. So how can you tell if the cracking or popping is indicative of something more serious? You should consult your doctor or physical therapist if in addition to the popping/cracking sounds you experience pain or swelling. Pain/swelling and joint noise could be indicative of a more serious condition, including, but not limited to2:
- Meniscus Tears
- Underlying Injury
- Respiratory Issue
More details about the mechanisms of these conditions can be found, here.
How can Physical Therapy help reduce joint cracking/popping?
Physical therapists can use manual therapy and suggest stretching techniques to help release any tightened muscles and tendons that may be rubbing against bones. They can also guide you through exercises that strengthen the muscles surrounding any “popping” joints to ensure proper movement. In general, increased movement and exercise will increase lubrication in the joints and decrease friction within them.