By Allie Firestone, DivineCaroline
As a lifelong knuckle cracker, I’ve heard the spiel dozens of times–you know, keep popping and you’ll end up with arthritis. Because of this, I’ve always kept an eye out for any proof that’ll prove my naggers wrong. Unfortunately, all I’ve figured out over the years is that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there when it comes to the harm that popping our joints causes.
More than a few times, annoyed parents and teachers have told me I’ll end up with old, arthritic hands if I continue cracking my knuckles–but so far, my fingers look no worse for the wear. Is it really a bad choice for our joint health? Does it actually (crossing my crackable fingers) help us? Is repetitive cracking risky? In an attempt to get to the bottom of the situation, I consulted medical authorities for their take on cracking.
“The jury is still out on whether cracking joints is a harmful or benign process,” says Lindsay Segal, a graduate practitioner in Samuel Merritt University’s physician assistant program. But as it turns out, studies have shown a few reliable connections between knuckle cracking and some particular joint-related problems.
What’s in a Pop?
First, I figured I should find out a little more about my knuckles. Like all joints, they’re the place where two bones come together to allow movement–we have them in our wrists, knees, and everywhere else we can bend. Tough, flexible tissues called ligaments hold them together. Joints are covered with a capsule filled with a special kind of liquid, called synovial fluid, that acts as a lubricant as we move around; they also contain small amounts of dissolved gas, which is what causes that pop when we crack them.
“The noise you hear with the cracking of a joint is due to a sudden release in joint pressure,” says Segal. “This releases the dissolved gases in the joint fluid.” This explains why we can’t pop and pop and pop–the gas has to build up again before it can be released, which takes about twenty minutes.
So why, then, can some of us crack more than others?
“It’s speculated that the laxity, or looseness, of the joint itself increases the more you crack it,” says Segal. It makes sense, therefore, that it’s very easy for me to crack my knuckles every twenty minutes, while some of my friends are unable to get even one pop out of theirs.
Joints might also make cracking sounds when our smooth cartilage breaks down, creating a rough joint surface (this is typical in arthritic joints). Another cause for cracking is when a tendon moves slightly out of place and then snaps back–this occurrence is common in knees and shoulders. Knees and ankles can also make cracking sounds when the ligaments tighten as we move our joints.