Experience Life Magazine

Creak, Crackle, Pop!

What is that sound coming from your joints, and should you be concerned? Find out what’s normal, and what you might want to get checked out.

#5: Creak, Crackle, Pop!

Have you ever heard a crackle in your knees as you stood up from a squat? Do your shoulders creak during lateral raises? Or maybe you’ve heard a “pop” deep inside your hip socket when you ease into Warrior II pose.

These cracking, creaking, popping sounds coming from your joints can be disconcerting, even embarrassing, but medical experts say most of them are harmless.

Normal movement causes some cracking and creaking in even the healthiest joints and cartilage. Some noises, though, are the result of cartilage damage from injury, loss of muscle tissue or conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Understanding what causes joint sounds is the first step in determining whether the racket in your body is just incidental noise or something that requires medical attention. In either case, learning how to better support your joints, especially as you age, may quell some of the clatter.

Totally Normal Noises

One of the most common sources of noise is gas — but not the intestinal kind. The joint capsule is filled with synovial fluid, which lubricates the joint and provides nourishment to the cells that form cartilage. The fluid contains dissolved gases, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen. When the joint ligaments are stretched, either intentionally (knuckle cracking) or by accident (arching your back), the pressure within the capsule changes and it releases carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles. The cracking sound you hear comes from those gas bubbles bursting. When these bubbles burst, people experience a sense of spaciousness within the joint and a temporary increase in its range of motion.

Another common cracking or popping sound doesn’t come from within the joint at all. During movement, tendons and ligaments that cross the joint can temporarily shift position or drag across a bone. When they return to their normal position, they make a snapping noise. You may have heard this in your knees when you rose from a sitting position, or in your neck when you turned your head. It’s also common in the shoulders. Loss of muscle mass from aging hastens this effect because more bone is exposed. This sounds scarier than it is; it’s actually a normal and harmless occurrence.

Not-So-Normal Noises

Something called crepitus, on the other hand, is not so benign. It might manifest as a crunching sound when you bend or extend your knees and is often described as sounding like Rice Krispies popping in a cereal bowl. Crepitus occurs when there is damage to cartilage within the joint. Sometimes the damage is due to overuse or aging; sometimes it’s a byproduct of injury, such as a tear in the ligament or cartilage. It can also be an early sign of arthritis.

“Cartilage doesn’t have pain sensors, so we can injure it and not feel pain. Any ‘grinding’ or ‘clunky’ noises should be checked by a doctor,” says Raymond Brodeur, DC, PhD, adjunct faculty of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Listen to Your Body

Are all those “pops” and “clunks” signs of serious problems? That depends on how your joints feel. Pain, swelling, numbness and loss of stability are all signs that something is amiss. Noise without these symptoms is probably harmless.

Some experts even believe that when joints crack, the action stimulates the nervous system, leading to a relaxation response in the surrounding muscles. “When a cat arches its back, it’s actually stimulating the proprioceptors in its spine — that’s how it wakes up its body,” says American Chiropractic Association spokesperson Robert Hayden, DC, PhD. “Similarly, it feels good when you move a joint and restore the flow of information from the joint to the part of the brain that coordinates it.”

Moderate joint cracking also helps to keep your joints from stiffening up — and that’s a good thing, Hayden adds. “A rule of thumb when it comes to joints is that when motion is decreased, joints become less functional.”

But this doesn’t mean you should try to force a crack. Doing so repeatedly may cause long-term damage to your joint tissue and may risk destabilizing areas that support your body, such as the lower back. And in a delicate area like the neck, where there are arteries present, wrenching against the natural plane and range of motion could even lead to stroke, Hayden warns.

It’s fine if your joints crack on their own, but it’s best to leave most  intentional cracking to a chiropractor or osteopath.

Joint Rx

While you can’t silence all of the noise emanating from your joints, you can take action to protect and care for these workhorses. Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and minimizing factors that decrease bone health, such as smoking, can help keep your joints healthy, and potentially quieter as a result.

The dietary supplements glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate can help reduce pain and swelling in joints in some people, and may also help those with early or even advanced osteoarthritis, says Dan Matthews, MD, spokesperson for the American Osteopathic Society for Sports Medicine. “Cartilage and synovial fluid have these two elements in them, so you are supplementing that material in the body.”

And recent research indicates that eating foods that reduce inflammation in the body — those containing antioxidants and essential fatty acids — is good for your joints, too. Antioxidants such as vitamins E, C, A, B5 and B6 help maintain cartilage and support its repair. And essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3s like those found in nuts and cold-water fish, can help normalize joint function.

Regular exercise keeps joints mobile and, by building muscle, more stable. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight, thus reducing the burden on your joints. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily, even for people with osteoarthritis. (For folks with bone or joint damage, the AAOS recommends moderate non-weight-bearing activity, such as swimming.) Being active helps strengthen your bones and support healthy joints. Just don’t forget to build in time for rest and recovery.

“Cartilage needs the cycle of weight-bearing and relaxation to pump nutrients to the cells that maintain its structure,” Brodeur explains. “Too much weight-bearing exercise can damage the joint by tearing cartilage or forcing out synovial fluid, robbing cells of the nutrients they need to survive.”

Like most things in our bodies, aging affects the joints. Diminished muscle mass, changes in cartilage and age-related stiffness all affect how your joints move and the kinds of noises they make. Medical professionals say the best thing you can do for your body and your joints, no matter your age, is to improve your overall health.

“Stay mobile, stay active,” says Hayden. “Joints need to be moved and periodically stressed in order to stay healthy. Even if they crackle.”

Kelle Walsh is a writer and editor in San Francisco.

Web Extra

The Knuckle Popper

Knuckle cracking is the most common of all joint sounds. Most of us have heard (often from our moms!) that it will lead to arthritis, or possibly worse. When researchers dismissed this claim a few years ago, some people felt they could begin to crack at will, but medical experts say that notion may be misguided.

“While there is no evidence that cracking your knuckles can cause arthritis or cause any change that can be measured with x-ray, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea,” says Raymond Brodeur, DC, PhD, adjunct faculty of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Michigan State University in East Lansing. One study showed that habitual knuckle cracking (done for an average of 35 years) led to significantly weaker grip strength and a higher incidence of joint swelling. “Weaker grip strength does have an effect on daily living — for example, it would make opening a child-proof container a lot more difficult,” he says.

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17 Comment to Creak, Crackle, Pop!

  • Katie says:

    I ache everywhere!!!! All the time and I can pop every joint on my fingers… What seems literally every joint. I can pop the most weirdest things and its sore and hard for me to move a lot of the times. Over the past year I feel like I have gotten weaker and it’s putting more damage on my life. Please list any suggestions of what I might have… Specific or not, I need help!!!

    Thanks

  • Julie says:

    So is there anyway to make the snap crackle & popping stop. Im 12 and I play softball all the time. When i squat to get the ball my knees will like pop and crackle, kinda like the Rice Krispies sound. It doesnt hurt it just happens alot. So is there anyway I can stop this ?

  • kevin says:

    everytime with out fail i extend my arms out they crack same with my legs and ankle it happens mostly everytime i extend it does it cracks like a simple crack not too loud they happen once then no cracking for a good like 15 minutes sometimes sooner i can crack the same spot on will

    • hannah says:

      that sucks, I am a dancer so I go to a orthopedic doctor, he does physical tharapy, I’m only 13 and had back surgery 3 times. Good luck try an orthopedic doctor see if that helps

  • sherrie says:

    every time i bend , extend my arms or have sex my joints in the hip knees and arms make a cracking sound there is no pain but i find it embarrassing especially during sex, is this a lack of exercise, milk or any factor relating to this problem need help :)

  • Melodie says:

    Every time I bend my knee and straighten it back out it makes a loud crunching sound. It reminds me of the sound of breaking bones, and this only occurs in my right knee. Should I be concerned about this?

    • Jocelyn Stone says:

      Melodie,

      Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, while our editors are quite knowledgeable in the general areas of nutrition and wellness, there are no physicians or nutritionists among them. So we have made it a policy not to offer advice regarding specific medical conditions. We recommend that you consult a trusted medical professional for more information.

      Best in health,
      The Experience Life editorial team

  • Talley Mitchell says:

    Every time I bend my knee it pops not just a small pop a big loud obnoxious pop any ideas on wht is causing it I fell off a golf cart and hurt my knee a month ago thts when it started could this have been wht started it ?

  • smartblonde826 says:

    After my back surgery, my back no longer pops and crackles.

  • Jamie, EL Editor says:

    Hi, smartblonde826,

    As we note in the story, some creaks and pops are normal and harmless. If you believe the cracking in your back is not, we suggest speaking to your healthcare professional to see if something else might be going on. In the meantime, there are some simple things you can do on your own to address the issue, including eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and minimizing factors that decrease bone health, such as smoking. Taking a dietary supplement like glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate may also help.

  • smartblonde826 says:

    The bones in my back snap crackle pop with every movement I make that involves my back. It is very annoying and everybody can hear it. What is the reason for this and is there anything I can do to eliminate this?

  • diana jones says:

    i had surgery for a rotator cuff tear in May. After awhile in phy. therapy, i started have these grinding pop krackle noises in this shoulder. usually always discomfort to painful with ROM not WNL yet. I am lost on what to do now.

  • TONI says:

    i HAVE A 6 x 14 RUPTURED DISK PRESSING ON THE SPINE C5-6 AND MY BACK AND ARMS CRACK AND POP CONSTANTLY, AND MY NECK AND BACK HURT ALL THE TIME. COULD THE NECK BE CAUSING THE BACK AND ARMS TO POP AND CRACK AND HURT. tHE DOCTORS SAY i NEED SURGERY ON NECK BUT MY THYROID NEEDS TO GET STABLE FIRST. COULD THYROID BE MAKING THIS WORSE.

    THANKS

  • Jamie, EL Editor says:

    Sorry to hear about the problems you’re having, Toni. Because Experience Life team members are not medical professionals, we rely on doctors and other experts to provide us with information and recommendations regarding health conditions – which means we can’t dispense medical advice. We would, however, suggest that you see a physical therapist or chiropractor as they specialize in body mechanics and may be able to provide you with additional insight about your problem. In the meantime, you might be interested in a story we did back in 2004 called “Little Gland, Big Trouble,” which describes the thyroid’s function and how it can cause a slew of health problems if it’s not functioning correctly. You can find it at http://www.experiencelifemag.com/issues/april-2004/health-wellness/little-gland-big-trouble.html. Good luck!

  • need help says:

    Lately everything is snap, crackle, and pop. It started with my arm, and then my shoulder. My knee chimed in and then both ankles. Today, when I got up from my chair, my spine popped. My neck pops each and every time I make a hard left. I’m sick of it. No real explanation on the internet. Oh well!

  • james chase says:

    Thanks so much for this article. My knees, especially the right one, have made strange crackling noises since i was a teenager. I never thought anything of it until somebody actually heard it and commented that i would probably have early onset arthritis or something.

    No pain, and no progression, plus your article make me feel much better about my 42 year old bones!

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