Cracking joints- what is that noise, and is it bad for me?

To crack or not to crack – that is the question!

Do you enjoy cracking your knuckles? If so, have you had people tell you that it will damage your joints?

Thankfully, research has shown that there is no link between arthritis and cracking your joints. So, do you know why joint cracking occurs? Or when you should see your doctor or Chiropractor about it?

Where does that cracking noise come from?

The “cracking joint” noise can happen as tendons (that attach our muscles to our bones) slide over bony points. As movement pulls them back into place, this can cause them to make a “snap” as they contact the bone again. This is the noise that we sometimes hear when we “crack” a joint. Although it may seem like there is something wrong, generally it is harmless.

You may also have heard that bubbles of gas popping inside the joints themselves produces the “crack” noise. It is true that the noise is due to gas in the joints. But did you know that the latest research has shown it is actually the creation of these bubbles that makes the noise?

Joint anatomy

First, let’s take a look at a typical joint. They consist of 2 surfaces (ie bone) that have a capsule between them, which provides lubrication to the moving surfaces. It also acts like a shock absorber. A liquid called synovial (or joint) fluid fills this capsule. The fluid itself is made of hyaluronic acid, lubricin, proteinases and collagenases. It also contains oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide as gases which are dissolved in the joint fluid.

What creates the noise when joints crack?

In order to investigate joint cracking, scientists used real-time MRI to look at the joint capsule. When the joint surfaces move and separate slightly, gas bubbles form in the synovial fluid inside the joint capsule. By observing the MRI images, they could pinpoint what happened inside the joint at the exact moment that the noise occurred. They found that the gas pockets formed as the joint moved, remained visible after the noise. This proved that it was their formation that was responsible for the cracking sound.

The scientific name for this process is called tribonucleation. Solid surfaces that are surrounded by liquid containing dissolved gas (like joint fluid) can reach a certain point of separation as they move. At this point, they separate rapidly, which reduces the pressure in the liquid and causes bubbles of gas to form.

Before being able to crack the joint again, you need to wait for the gases to be reabsorbed into the joint fluid.

When are cracking joints a problem?

So, is this a cause for concern? Generally speaking, if you crack your joints and don’t experience pain, it is fine.

If you crack your joints and do experience pain, there could be a number of causes. These range from arthritis (damage to the cartilage covering the joint surface) to meniscus tears. Other injuries can cause swelling or issues with bone alignment which may cause certain joints to pop or click. In these cases it is usually best to check it out as your chiropractor can advise you on the cause of the issue. Exercises that strengthen surrounding muscles and provide more support to the joint can help.

What happens when a Chiropractor makes my back crack?

If you’ve had your back adjusted by a Chiropractor, you’ll be very familiar with the sound of clicking or popping that might happen during an adjustment!

As you’ll now know, it’s possible for any joint in the body to click or pop, if there is gas in the joint. This is why we do not encourage people to “crack” their own necks or back, as this does not target the joint that is causing the issue, and can cause joints to become hypermobile. A professional adjustment by a Chiropractor is highly specific and very safe, working to restore movement to joints that are causing pain through stiffness or lack of motion.

 

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