When is Joint Popping a Problem?

March 19th, 2018 Becki Andrus

Is Your Joint Popping A Sign Of Something Bigger?

Joint popping is a pretty normal occurrence — you’ve surely experienced it. You move your ankle and hear a faint pop, or wring your hand together and enjoy the relief as your knuckles crack in quick succession. For the most point, joints cracking and popping isn’t a problem. There are rare cases where it can be a sign of a hard to see problem, though. Many people don’t understand why joints pop and crack, either, which can lead to some confusion about the experience. The phenomenon is actually more interesting than you might think, and could be important to know about.

What, Exactly, Is Joint Popping?

Joint popping is the noise created by the surfaces of a joint rubbing together. You may notice that your joints pop and crack more as you get older. This is because the cartilage between your joints wears down over time, leaving more, and rougher surface area to rub together. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, though. While you never want your bones to be rubbing together, the popping sound signifies that there is more than enough cartilage for you to be okay. Joints can make other sounds, as well, such as creaking. Creaking will come and go dependent on the use of a joint, sleeping position, and several other factors. Many people ask about joint popping and creaking in fear that it might be an issue, but joints making noise is essentially a fact of life.

You may also notice joint popping when you’re working out, or using a joint repetitively for other reasons. This is also common, and typically harmless. When this type of popping occurs, it is because the muscles you are using is tight. Tightness of a muscle can cause friction on the bone, leading to noise being made. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it does imply that you should do some stretching. Muscle tightness is a cause for many different injuries, especially muscle strains and tears, which should be avoided when possible. When stretching you might hear a loud pop, followed by a sense of relief in the area — when this happens, the stretching has done its job.

Joint popping may also appear in the form of knuckles cracking. There’s an old wives tale that cracking your knuckles can make them become inflamed, or lead to arthritis. Like most wives tales, this one is false. Cracking your knuckles won’t cause any problems, and is perfectly natural. The process actually has a scientific name, cavitation. Joints naturally accrue nitrogen bubbles over time, because of the synovial fluid that serves as a lubricant for them. These bubbles can build up in the spaces of a joint, and cause the joint to feel tight. When this happens, you can “crack” the joint to loosen it, releasing the gas from it’s bubbles. This is cavitation.

Can I Prevent Joint Popping?

If you want to stop your joints from popping, there’s only one solution: get up and get moving. “Motion is lotion,” as the saying goes. Stretching and movement should prevent muscle tightness and keep your joints lubricated, thus preventing them from rubbing together. Avoiding joint popping shouldn’t be your only reason for doing this, though. While joint problem is normally fine, other injuries caused by a lack of stretching aren’t.

When To Tell Your Doctor About Joint Popping

If you are experiencing joint popping, even if it seems excess, it is only a problem if you are feeling pain as a result. Painful joint popping can be a symptom of early stage arthritis, tendinitis, or bursitis. Arthritis is, of course, characterized by inflammation of a joint, which can cause painful “popping” as the bones of the joint begin to rub together. Note that, again, this is not caused by knuckle cracking, and has nothing to do with the buildup of gas in the joint. However, the two in tandem can lead to pain and discomfort. Tendinitis is an inflammation of a tendon, which can cause the joint to move in awkward ways, thus causing the joint to pop. Bursitis is the more likely case, though the pain it causes should be nearly ever present. Bursitis is caused by inflammation of the bursa, which helps to lubricate joints. When the bursitis is injured, joints are more likely to rub together, thus causing popping, creaking, cracking, and (of course) pain.

The bottom line is this: joint popping is not a problem in the long term, unless it’s a problem in the short term. If you aren’t experiencing pain, you can crack your knuckles all day long — the worst you have to fear is weird looks from your friends.

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