Why do My Joint Pop and Crack? Is this something I should be worried about? | Total Performance Physical Therapy| 215.997.9898June 6, 2019
This is a very common question because as we get older (and unfortunately, we all do) our joints start to pop and crack. We wind up sounding like the 4th of July or rice krispies with snap, crackle and pop. Most people find that when they are injured the area that hurts seems to pop and crack more. But is this really what happens? And when you hear the pops and cracks is it something to be worried about?
Generally hearing pops and cracks in any joint is not anything to worry about. As we get older our joints are going to start to pop and crack more. It is a part of aging and it is not something that should cause you to change your life or your activities. For example, a lot of people who squat down get a lot of pops and cracks, even very loud pops and cracks but they do not hurt, it just mostly hurts people to hear them.
However, if you have popping and cracking or snapping and it is painful then it is something that you should be concerned about and you should seek medical attention for it. Painful cracks and pops are not natural. They are something that you need to pay attention to and need to address. For example, if you lift your arm overhead and hear a pop and that pop is painful, then you need to be worried about that pop. That is something that is wrong in the shoulder and needs to be addressed.
Most people report when a body part hurts, for example they have knee pain or shoulder pain, they often hear a lot of pops and cracks. Most people swear they were not there before but most often times the pops and cracks were there prior to the body part hurting they just did not pay attention to it until it started to hurt.
What makes the pops and cracks?
There’s a couple of reasons why the joints pop and crack. One reason is that there are joint pops and joint cracks is because there is nitrogen being released from the joint. If you could imagine plastic wrap surrounding each joint, creating this plastic wrap bubble around the joint. As you through the day this bubble fills up with nitrogen. When the bubble gets full of nitrogen it will cause a joint pop or a joint crack. While this is a broad explanation of what happens, this is usually not a joint pop or joint crack that causes pain.
Another reason that you can hear a joint crack, or a joint pop is that the joint is not aligned correctly. So, as you go down in a squat or as you lift your arm over your head, and your joints are moving they are designed to fit together perfectly. There are protective coverings on all the bones that allow them to slide and move over each other without pain and without pops and cracks. As we get older and there is a wearing away of the protective covering, the joints do not move smoothly. This decreased smoothness causes joint pops and joint cracks.
This loss of protective covering over the bones and joints that causes joint pops and joint cracks, can cause pain. Sometimes the protective layer can be completely gone, and it can cause bone to rub on top of bone and that is when a lot of pain can happen with a joint pop and joint crack. For example, when you hear a joint crack or a joint pop as you bend down that is the interaction of the knee cap (the patella) with the bone behind it. Many times, the covering on the back of the knee cap is gone or partially missing or worn away in some parts. As the back of the knee cap with missing covering interacts with the bone behind it when you bend down, you will hear a joint crack or joint pop. This joint crack or joint pop will be loud and may or may not be painful. You may find over time that the joint pops or joint cracks get very painful or become much louder over time.
It is important to note that when you have a painful joint or a painful body part, you become more aware of that body part. You pay more attention to everything that happens at the joint. You pay attention to what hurts it and why it hurts and what you can do to stop it from hurting. Therefore, it is common to believe that you have pain and suddenly you are having joint pops and joint cracks. But most joint pops and joint cracks have been there for a long time before pain was ever felt. So even if the body part is painful, if there is no specific pain that occurs when you hear the joint pop or joint crack, then there is nothing to be concerned about with the joint popping and joint cracking.
It is also important to note that a joint pop or joint crack may be associated with a pinching feeling. This is not normal. If you feel a pinch with the joint pop or joint crack that is something to seek medical attention for. Especially as we get older, some things get loosened up and ligaments and muscles and tendons can get caught in the joint as you move, and this can cause a pinching feeling. So, if there is a pinching feeling associated with the pop then you need to seek medical attention, this is not normal.
What is the one thing you should NEVER do?
Joint pops and joint cracks are normal and natural especially if there is no pain associated with the joint pops or joint cracks. But the one thing you never want to do ever is crack your joints. You should never force your joints to crack. You should never crack your knuckles or crack your neck but forcing your neck to turn or pushing or pulling your fingers in order to get the joint pop or joint crack.
In fact, the more you crack or pop your joints, the more you will feel the need to pop and crack your joints. You will condition your joints to need to be cracked and popped. Therefore, you will feel the need to pop and crack them more. This will cause them to loosen up and can cause you more problems and can cause you pain in the long run. So yes, forcing your joints to pop or crack is not good and you should never force any joint to crack or pop.
If you have a joint pop or joint crack that is painful then it is important to seek medical attention. But if you have joint pops or joint cracks that are happening naturally that are not painful, then those are nothing to worry about and you should continue to live your life!