Remember when you were a kid and your mom used to tell you that cracking your knuckles would give you arthritis?
If you’re anything like me, that didn’t stop you from doing it because–let’s face it–it feels nice. But whether you’re cracking your knuckles or your body makes all sorts of snap, crackle, pop noises when you stretch or move around, those sounds can seem pretty scary if you don’t know what they are.
We get questions every day like this one:
“Hi, I’m doing week 1 of the Elements program and have a clicking hip during the hip circle exercises. Is this normal and are there ways around it?”
If you’ve got popping knees or clicking joints, or if you just like cracking your knuckles, this article will give you the rundown on why joints pop, what it means if your fingers are always cracking or your knees are always popping, and when it might be a good idea to talk to a doctor.
Plus, I’ll show you some movements that will help you protect your joints and body.
I’ve seen (and heard) a lot of joints making some funny noises in my practice as a physical therapist since 1998, and I’ve done the research for you. Give it a read and you’ll see why you’ve got those cracks and pops, and how you can improve your condition.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:
What’s really going on in that cracking joint?Should you be worried about those noises?Concrete steps you can take right now to protect your jointsOr, you can jump straight to our free guide to healthy joints for pain-free movement
“Why is my knee popping when I squat? Is it dangerous?”
Simply put, those knee popping and joint clicking sounds are the results of something called cavitation, and for the most part, they’re nothing to worry about, as long as they’re not accompanied by pain.
As I’ll explain in a minute, there are certain types of joint pops you should probably investigate, and further down in this article, I’ll show you some ways to keep your joints healthy.
Let me first explain the theory behind what cavitation is, and what’s really going on in your joints when you hear those pops.
What is Joint Cavitation?
It all starts in the synovial joints, which are all the joints in your body that allow for movement–your knuckles, knees, elbows, spinal joints, etc. You can see what a synovial joint basically looks like in the image to the right.
As you can see, there’s a joint capsule surrounding the joint, which is filled with fluid. When there’s a change in pressure in the synovial fluid and the natural gasses in that fluid, it results in a cavity formation, which causes those sounds you hear.
It takes approximately 20 minutes for those natural gasses to reabsorb, which is why you can’t crack your knuckles again immediately after doing so once.
Any synovial joint can be popped.
“But what about those other clicks and pops that just happen when I’m moving around or while exercising? Are those the same?”
Oftentimes, yes. But sometimes, they can indicate something else may be going on.
Clicks–Repetitive clicks can sometimes indicate that certain connective tissues are out of proper alignment or possibly damaged. It can also come from misalignment of a large nerve, such as the ulnar nerve which slips in and out of its normal groove when you bend and straighten your elbow. If there’s no pain, I wouldn’t worry about this, but the exercises I’ll show you below can be very beneficial.Noisy Rips/Tears–I’ve had patients tell me about other kinds of popping and “ripping” that occurs suddenly, with pain and subsequent swelling and bruising. This is probably scar tissue tearing. If the pain subsists, you should go get checked out by a physician.Clunks–This is an interesting phenomenon, which is often felt as a shift that may or may not accompany a louder pop. It’s often described as distinct from the “regular pop” that people describe, but it actually may be the same phenomenon, just louder and more noticeable.
The most important thing to know about these joint noises is, if there’s no pain involved, you don’t have to worry, although it might be a good way to tell that you need some work on your mobility and motor control, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
If, however, your clicks or pops come along with pain that is persistent, please go get it checked out by a professional.
Note: You can take care of aches and restrictions throughout your body with the proven exercises in our free Body Maintenance Guide.
Why Does it Feel Good to Pop Your Joints?
Knuckle cracking isn’t the only thing that feels good. Whether you’ve been sitting in a chair for a while, or you’re just getting out of bed in the morning, a good stretch that results in some pops feels really nice.
Why is that?
Well, when you pop a joint, there’s a stretch on the joint capsule, which causes a relaxation of the muscles surrounding the joint (by stimulating Type III joint mechanoreceptors–for you anatomy buffs).
Those pops feel especially good when your joints are feeling tight or stiff.
So, when you have a lot of pops or clicks going on in a certain joint, it can be a good assessment tool for you to tell you there’s some tightness in the surrounding muscles that you should work through. The exercises I’ll show you below will help you loosen up those muscles so your joints don’t feel quite as tight.
There is another theory that popping a joint releases natural painkillers (called endogenous opiates). This can be quite addictive, which is why some people keep cracking their backs or keep going to someone to do it for them.
What’s the Deal? Is Knuckle Cracking Bad for You?
There is little evidence that supports the claim that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis, but there is some debate about whether repeatedly forcing your joints to pop can lead to increased impairment or inflammation.
As we’ve discussed already, there is a difference between clicks and pops that happen with regular movement or exercise, and those that occur through force.
While neither type of pop is “bad” for you (unless it comes with pain), in general, repeated high force motions may not be the best thing to do to yourself unless you really know what you are doing.
You’re not likely to hurt yourself acutely, but it is plausible that overstretching at the joint can impair motor control over time.
That feeling you get of needing to pop your joints is there for a reason, though. It indicates that you’ve developed some tightness in the muscles and tissues around those joints, so working on improving your mobility in those areas can be helpful.
Bottom line: Cracking your knuckles or other joints is not bad for you per se, but it may not be the best idea to do it repeatedly long-term.
Try These Exercises for Healthy Joints
We all get those clicks and pops from time to time, and that’s okay. What’s cool about them, though, is they can tell you where you need some work on improving your strength, mobility, and motor control.
We’ve heard from a lot of our clients that adding some simple movements into their daily lives has helped them with working through those clicks.
Here are just a few movements you can work on to both strengthen and mobilize your joints, to keep them healthy and happy:
1. Bear Walk
We’ll first work on the Bear, which looks like this:
Start in a downward dog position, with your butt pushed up into the air.Press your hands into the ground as you walk forward by sliding your right arm and left leg forward at the same time.While still pressing your hands into the ground, move your left arm and right leg forward.Keep up this contralateral pattern as you move slowly and with control
How this exercise helps your joints: By putting incremental pressure through your hands and wrists as you straighten your arms, you’ll strengthen the muscles around the joints in your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. As you work on straightening your legs over time, you’ll also strengthen your lower body so that your ankles, knees, and hips are healthy. And as you improve, your back muscles will get stronger and more mobile, making your spine healthier.
Next we’ll work on the Monkey, which looks like this:
Start by dropping into a deep squat position (as deep as you can comfortably go).Place your hands on the ground to the front and outside of your leg, so that your right hand is just in front of your left foot and your left hand is about a foot apart from your right hand.Press into the ground as you pull your legs over to the left, landing with your right foot just behind your left hand.Keep going toward the left for several paces in a row before switching directions.
How this exercise helps your joints: Even if you struggle with the bodyweight squat at first, you’ll find that practicing the Monkey will help you improve your squat slowly, but surely. And as that improves, your hips, knees, and ankles will be supporting more of your weight, which will strengthen those areas. Plus, the rotational movement of this exercise will help condition your shoulders and back muscles in a different way than with the Bear.
Finally, let’s work on the Frogger, which also starts in a deep squat, but looks like this:
Similar to the Monkey, you’ll start in a squat position, going as deeply as you can comfortably go.Place your hands on the ground about a foot in front of you, with your hands just inside your knees.Press into the ground to hop your legs forward to meet your hands.Reset your hands so they are in front of you, and keep moving forward in this fashion.
How this exercise helps your joints: Much like the Monkey, the focus on the squat is good for the health of your joints. With the Frogger, though, there’s much more emphasis on wrist, elbow, and shoulder strength. You’ll add more and more pressure through your hands as you get stronger, and this will help your joints support increasingly more of your weight.
Adding unique movements like these will help you work on your strength, mobility, and motor control all at the same time, while making your joints healthy and strong.
You may notice those clicks and pops lessening over time, and that feeling of needing to pop your joints may dissipate altogether!
Free Your Body from Painful Movement
As you continue to move and exercise and change your body over time, you’ll notice changes in strength, flexibility, and coordination will bring other developments as well.
With new awareness you may feel that your clicking shoulder doesn’t do that anymore, or your crunchy knees don’t crunch any longer. These positive changes only tend to happen if we step outside of our normal exercise routines and get moving in a different way.
Moving in the same patterns over and over again could lead you to over-stress your joints and tendons, which can result in occasional clicking to turn into a consistently painful issue.
It’s great to exercise regularly and there’s probably no preventative medicine better than that, but don’t turn your training into an unbending and unadaptable routine.
Build Strength, Flexibility, and Motor Control
Stop worrying about all those clicks and pops. Elements takes you from stiff and sore to serious movement skills in the time you’d usually spend doing the same old gym-class stretches that never get you anywhere.
Your Foundation for Physical Autonomy