Do Your Joints Pop?

By Kelle Walsh, Experience Life

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 youíve heard a ďpopĒ 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 ó 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 doesnít 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. Itís 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; itís 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 itís a byproduct of injury, such as a tear in the ligament or cartilage. It can also be an early sign of arthritis.

“Cartilage doesnít 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.

Next: What to Listen For

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 ó 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 ó and thatís 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 doesnít 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.

Itís fine if your joints crack on their own, but itís best to leave most† intentional cracking to a chiropractor or osteopath.

Joint Rx
While you canít 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 ó those containing antioxidants and essential fatty acids ó 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 donít 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.
Noise Patrol
In general, itís pretty easy to determine if your joint noise is normal. Periodic pops and snaps are likely gas bubbles bursting within the fluid of the joint, or tendons shifting position during movement and then snapping back into place. A crunching or grinding sound, however, may indicate cartilage damage, and you may want to have it checked out by a healthcare professional.

As a rule, any joint noises accompanied by pain, swelling, numbness or loss of stability are cause for concern. Noise without these symptoms is likely harmless and may just be the side effect of feel-good adjustments within the body.

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter.

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Eliza D.
Past Member 5 years ago

I crack my elbows and knees, and recently my right wrist. i do this because after a while of not doing it, it feels very uncomfortable, and it feels like i just have to crack them. Sometimes i can't go 10 seconds without cracking them, sometimes two minutes. I think i really need help because it is starting to hurt in my wrist and elbow. Any info that would help would be appreciated.
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Arash Doe
Past Member 5 years ago

I got that. I think it's hereditary.

Eunice d.
Eunice F.6 years ago

My knees hurt from running and always crack in the wintertime. It makes me paranoid that I might have arthritis even though I'm in my teens. Is that possible?

Winter Wheat
Winter Wheat6 years ago

I assume I'm just getting old when the joints start a-snappin'.

Lisa B.
Lisa B.6 years ago

Interesting article. One word of warning I would give is that if you have a family history of diabetes, I would be cautious about glucosamine and chondroitin suppliments. There have been some suggestions that they are linked to developing diabetes. I don’t think anything has been proven, but these are fairly new supplements, so some caution may be called for.

Mary B.
Mary B.6 years ago

So,say you go see a Dr. for all this. What can they do for you? If there is damage occuring, can it be stopped without surgery?. Drugs can be given for pain and inflamation, but does that set real healing in motion? I'm sure most of them mean well, but I just think there's probably not too much they can do, and it's very expensive anyway.What new treatments are out there for inflamatory arthritis, numbness in the feet, occational deep pain in the hip joints? I'm already very much into natural things and healthy life styles, don't take over the counter drugs very often, and haven't been to a Dr. in years. I have no insurance and can't afford it anyway. Sometimes, I think that's why I have so few health issues. But, I like to keep an open mind about things.After all, Dr's used to think that fiber had absolutly nothing to do with bowel health, and assured us that our skin did not absorb things.Modern bio science is reverseing a lot of what was previously believed.

Pamela C.
Pamela C.6 years ago

My knees cracking in my late teens and 20's was the first sign of hereditary osteoarthritis. It was such a classic case, my rhuematologist loved me!

Audrey Ro
Audreya r6 years ago

John, see your doctor.
Find out if Physical therapy or simply increasing strength/activity can help or if you need a more agressive approach,i.e. surgery.
Keep the body strong and flxible, with a doctor's supervision if needed, is a wonderful key to feeling better.

John Allen
John Allen6 years ago

the older I get my knees hurt so much at times and are very stiff, if I get down on my knee ot knee's to do anything I need to make sure I have a chair or walking stick to help me get back up.

Annie Flanders
Annie Flanders6 years ago

interesting article.

so far i have had the meniscus surgery for my right knee and am now awaiting the rotator surgery for my right arm.

getting older presents challenges. :::::smile:::::