Pop-pop-pop. For some people, cracking knuckles is oddly satisfying, while for others, the sound is enough to drive them up a wall. But whether or not you find the practice irritating, is cracking your knuckles bad for you? And what about cracking the rest of your joints, like when you do some back cracking or joint popping in the mornings — are you destined to get arthritis or are the “dangers” just an old wives tale? Let’s give this one a crack.
Are Cracking Joints Normal?
Creaky knees, ankles that pop — are cracking joints even normal? If you’ve ever had cracking joints, there’s no need to worry.
In general, as long as the cracking isn’t accompanied by pain or swelling, you’re OK. When your joints crack, it’s usually because the muscle is tight, which can cause friction around your bones, creating the sound you hear. That often happens in the mornings, when you’ve been lying still for hours, or when you’re doing a repetitive movement, like lifting weights.
When tendons rub a joint, they can also make a sound. That’s partially why your joints will crack more as you age; the cartilage around them is wearing down, which results in noisier joints than usual.
If, however, you consistently experience pain when your joints crack or they seem to swell, it’s time to pay a visit to the doctor. There’s likely an underlying issue, like a joint abnormality.
Is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad For You?
But what about cracking your knuckles? Many of us were brought up being told that if we cracked our knuckles, we’d wind up with arthritis. Are you doomed?
Knuckle poppers, rejoice: cracking your knuckles isn’t bad for you! Here’s what actually happens when you crack your knuckles: there’s nitrogen hanging out in your joints. When there’s a sudden change in how your joints are positioned, like when you stretch in the morning, the gas is released, which makes that popping sound you hear. (1) It’s the fast movement that’s key; if you tried to crack your knuckles with slow movements, it wouldn’t work.
Throughout the years, cracking your knuckles has gotten a bad rep. A 1990 study, for instance, found that people who cracked their knuckles had poor lower grip strength and were more likely to have hand swelling. (2) But that’s been debunked — a study from 2017 found that knuckle-crackers didn’t have more swelling or weakness than those who didn’t crack. (3) Another released in the same year found that cracking knuckles doesn’t affect grip strength, either. (4)
And those claims about arthritis? Well, they don’t stand up to science, either. A 2011 study published in the Journal of American Board of Family Medicine found that there was no difference in rates of arthritis between people who cracked their knuckles frequently and those who didn’t. (5)
Knuckle cracking: annoying, perhaps, but will not cause arthritis. Phew!
What About Your Neck, Back, Ankles and Knees?
That’s fine for knuckles, what about back cracking and other joints? Things are a little different here.
When it comes to your back and neck, thought it feels good, you could be doing more harm than good. If your back or neck are naturally cracking, that’s all good — enjoy the feeling! But if you’re purposefully cracking these because you’re experiencing pain and want some relief, you’re putting yourself at risk for things like over-stretched ligaments, misalignment in your back or pulled muscles, all of which are likely to restrict your mobility and cause more pain.
On top of that, you’re providing temporary relief from what’s likely to be an issue that requires some professional attention. A chiropractor will help figure out what’s going on — for instance, did you know that if your core is weak, you might experience back pain? A skilled professional will be able to hone in on what’s happening and help you strengthen or stabilize the area that’s hurting.
Gentle yoga stretches are also great for releasing your back without the potentially harmful side effects of back and neck cracking. Child’s pose and cobra will feel nice, or even heading to a yin yoga class, where poses are traditionally held longer to give muscles time to open and adjust. Plus, yoga will even change your brain!
And your knees and ankles? Well, popping these joints at will is a little more difficult than, say, cracking your neck, so the potential for injury is a lot slimmer. Like your knuckles, cracking knees and ankles is fine if you’re not experiencing pain. If you do find yourself wincing in pain when these joints crack, however, get thee to the doctor.
Otherwise, remember to keep moving. Exercising regularly and incorporating strength and resistance training helps strengthen joints, minimizing your risks of injuring yourself. If you need to keep things low impact, swimming and walking are great options. Regular movement comes with a bonus, too: it can help you lose weight or keep pounds off, both of which reduce stress on your joints, making them less likely to ache.
If your joints cracking are consistently causing you pain, it’s time to see a doctor. This could indicate a more serious condition. Additionally, while cracking your back and neck on occasion is fine, consistently doing so could cause more problems than you’re alleviating, including torn ligaments.
But cracking your knuckles or occasionally cracking your back and neck is A-OK. Crack on, my friends!
- The sound you hear when you crack your knuckles is gas being released from the joints. It’s perfectly safe.
- Cracking your knuckles will not give you arthritis, cause swelling or otherwise harm your hands.
- Cracking your back and neck, however, are a little different. If it happens naturally or you do it on occasion just because it feels good, there’s nothing to worry about. But if you’re doing this to relieve pain, it’s best to see a doctor, as there’s likely and underlying problem, and you could be doing more harm than good.
- Stretching and yoga can help alleviate some of the niggles that make you want to crack your back and neck.
- Cracking your knees and ankles is also fine as long as you’re not experiencing pain.
- Engaging in regular exercise, particularly strength and resistance training, will help strengthen knees and ankles, too.
- If it hurts, see a doctor. If not, you’re probably fine!