My prior post on this topic had so many comments that it had become bloated and difficult to follow. I will attempt here to summarize the answers to those comments and also add new insights that I have gained in the years since that prior post.
Joint motion is good. Here is an excellent summary quote from The Mayfield Clinic for Brain and Spine: “Good joint motion is essential for the health and nutrition of the discs and joints because it permits the exchange of nutrients, fluids, and waste. Good motion helps reduce pain, muscle spasms or imbalance, and improves nervous system function and overall health. Without movement, discs and joints may degenerate more quickly than normal. Motion also reduces the formation of scar tissue, which can lead to stiffness and degeneration.”
The issue is simple sometimes our joints make noise when they move. Noises are OK. The old wives tale that popping your knuckles will give you arthritis is just that, a tale. With that said, knuckle cracking is not a good habit. There are 4 major noises that joints make and the general rule for all of those noises is, that if it doesn’t hurt, it is probably fine. Here they are…
The Break – This one hurts and is therefore bad. When bones break they make a noise.
The Thunk – This one can go either way. The best example I can come up with is a dislocated shoulder. It thunks going out and then thunks coming back in, but one hurts and one makes it feel better.
The Twang – It’s like strumming a guitar string. You’ve seen people with their ankles or wrists popping over and over. It doesn’t hurt, but the ligaments or tendons are being strummed or popped over a bump or restriction of some sort.
The Pop – This is the one that the most people refer to with chiropractors. The popping is not perfectly understood. The current thinking is that it is a cavitation. The pressure increases in the joint space causing the nitrogen or other gases to be “popped” from the liquid to gaseous form. It takes a refractory period before this can happen again. That’s why you can’t pop your knuckles immediately after doing it, but have to wait for a time before they will pop again
Popping your knuckles or any joint is not bad for you – Anything to excess is bad. You should not be popping any joint, all the time. I’ve seen people who every 30 minutes or so will take their head and twist it “crackle”. Every time you take your joints that far it puts stress on the joint capsule. Stress by its self is not bad as with exercise it can lead to improvement, but if it is over done you can hurt yourself.
Let me address popping your own joints as a form of treatment. A Chiropractor will assess specific joints, find restrictions and adjust them sometimes getting a pop. If you try to adjust yourself you will likely end up getting some popping sounds somewhere, but you will probably only get temporary relief, if any at all. You can also make things worse by producing a hypermobility around the area that is stuck.
I encourage you to stretch and take your body through all of the ranges of motion that you can. That will often solve your problem. If stretching does help, that is great. If range of motion exercise does not solve your problem then seek chiropractic help.
Here are some of the most common questions asked in the past and their answers.
Q: How much is too much popping.
A: There is no answer for everyone. If you think you do it too much, you probably do. Track your symptoms. Make a little list of each that you are concerned with. Write down what the symptoms are, when/how often they happen and anything that you do on your own that makes them feel better or worse. You might find the cause and be able to make a change that resolves the symptoms on your own or you might be the best informed patient your doctor has seen in weeks.
Q: What should I do if I pop my knuckles/back/joints too much?
A: First see a chiropractor to see if there is something wrong that you should address physically. If you can remove the cause then you won’t have to worry about popping.
If this popping has become habitual or obsessive for you and is not due to some underlying condition then you can try behavior modification. Habits are always easier to break with support, and professional help may be useful to you.
Q: Can you tell me what’s wrong with my popping knuckles?
A: It’s very difficult and illegal to diagnose over the internet and without an examination. I provide this information as educational. It should not be a substitute for seeing your chiropractor.
UPDATE: Scientific American presents an interesting article reviews some of the research on the topic of knuckle cracking.