Popping backs, knees that crack when you stand up, wrists that snap when you rotate them— we’ve all had experience with talking joints. But what are they trying to say, and should you be concerned? We talked to Karim Elsharkawy, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and joint replacement specialist on the medical staff at Texas Health Allen and at Texas Center for Joint Replacement, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to translate all those pops, cracks and snaps.
How It Works
According to the Arthritis Foundation, snapping and popping of joints is common and isn’t a cause or sign of arthritis. Fluid exists in the joints to reduce friction, and thus reduce wear and tear. When you pull on a joint, you can create a gas bubble within that fluid. That’s when we hear the popping sounds that these knuckles and many other joints make.
“It’s not uncommon for joints to pop and click,” Elsharkawy explains. “I sometimes even demonstrate for my patients how a normal functioning knee can pop by flexing my own knee! With no pain, there is no concern.”
Noisy joints can also be caused by tight ligaments sliding from one bone to another. This commonly occurs in the ankle and knee. Pops that occur in your neck and back are mostly caused by minor misalignments — hence your back cracking so loudly during a chiropractic visit, or when you twist around in your desk chair to try to relieve the tension from sitting for so long.
Is It Safe?
As Elsharkawy mentions, joint sounds become something to worry about only when they are accompanied by pain or swelling. The most common cause for this combination of pain and noise is arthritis, but there are other culprits, as well.
Arthritis, most common in the knee and ankle, is when cartilage begins to wear down or tear — a condition that can eventually lead to a need for joint replacement. Popping sounds in conjunction with severe pain in the joint can also signal tearing or rupturing of the hamstring, Achilles tendon or anterior cruciate ligament.
“Sometimes it’s one bone rubbing against another bone when all cartilage and lubrication are gone, but it could also be from bone spurs secondary to knee or hip arthritis,” Elsharkawy adds. “I tell my patients if there is pain, or functional limitations associated, they need to get it checked.”
While noisy joints may be a bit of nuisance, if there is no accompanying pain, they are typically harmless. Although popping your knuckles or cracking your back every now and then isn’t going to put you on the fast track to arthritis (and sure feels good!) Elsharkawy notes one of the best ways to keep your joints healthy is to include low-impact aerobic exercise such as power walking, swimming, using the elliptical or riding a stationary bike.
Concerned about the health of your joints? Take the Texas Health Joint Assessment at YourJointHealth.com.
Physicians employed by Texas Health Physicians Group are not employees or agents of Texas Health Resources hospitals.