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Can Cracking Your Joints Cause Long-Term Damage?

Cracking a joint, whether it’s your knuckles or your neck, can feel seriously satisfying—and yet, at some point or another, someone has surely scolded you for doing it. Many of us grew up being told that cracking our knuckles and other joints is a bad habit—and many of us have just kept on doing it anyway because it feels too darn good.

If you’ve ever wondered whether cracking your joints is harmful to your health, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything you need to know about why joints crack in the first place, what you’re doing when you force a gratifying crackle, and how to make sure you’re keeping your joints happy and healthy for the long-term.

What causes cracking joints?

Cracking joints may sound like something scary is happening beneath the surface, but that’s not necessarily the case. “When bones move, friction between them is reduced by synovial fluid, which lubricates the joint,” explains Fort Lauderdale-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kevin Shrock, M.D. “Sometimes, the pressure difference in the synovial fluid can cause a gas bubble to develop.” When pressure within the joint then causes the gas bubble to collapse, you hear that audible cracking or popping sound. 

This is exactly why joints tend to crack when they’re in motion; when a joint moves rapidly, the synovial fluid shifts around quickly to adjust to the pressure changes that occur as it moves, often causing an air bubble to form and leading to an audible pop when that bubble eventually collapses, Shrock notes. 

Which joints are most likely to crack? 

“Generally speaking, joints with a wider range of motion and more stress during movement are more likely to naturally crack,” Shrock says. Your knuckles, neck, back, hips, and knees are the top joints most likely to crack on their own. “Due to their proximity to the skin’s surface and the simplicity with which the fingers can be moved to create the cracking sound, the knuckles are simple to crack,” Shrock highlights, as an example. Likewise, the numerous joints and vertebrae in the neck and back make them popular targets for cracking during stretching.

Can cracking Your joints Harm Your Health?

Good news: Joints that crack naturally due to ordinary movement are generally nothing to worry about. “The presence and movement of lubricating synovial joint fluid within the joint is necessary for normal joint motion,” Shrock explains. Sometimes, cracks and pops just happen!

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That said, you should be more mindful when it comes to forcefully cracking any of your joints. Although the occasional cracking of joints is generally seen as safe, excessive or strong manipulation of the joints can cause joint instability, ligament injury, and even permanent joint damage, Shrock cautions. “It may even speed up the onset of arthritis,” he says. You see, cracking the same joint repeatedly wears down the joint and nearby structures, which can lead to inflammation in the area. “Forceful joint manipulation can also tear ligaments, which can lead to discomfort and dysfunction in the joints,” Shrock adds. 

Additionally, it’s important to resist the urge to keep cracking any joint when swelling or pain are present. “Cracking joints that are already painful or inflamed may indicate an underlying joint condition that needs to be examined by a medical specialist,” Shrock notes. “Purposefully cracking joints may only offer transient comfort and may even make underlying joint issues worse.” 

It’s also important to realize that some joints pose a greater risk of harm than others. “Deliberately cracking some joints, such as the spine or big weight-bearing joints like the hips or knees, can be risky and may eventually result in arthritis, joint instability, and ligament injury,” Shrock says. So, avoid intentionally cracking these specific joints, as doing so may be more problematic than cracking your knuckles, for example.

While there’s ultimately no universal rule of thumb around cracking joints, Shrock offers the following advice: “If you’re pissing off the people around you by constantly cracking your knuckles, it’s too much; if it’s causing pain, it’s too much.” We’ll add: If you’d use the word “aggressive” to in any way describe your cracking, it’s time to back off.

Tips for Healthy Joints

Since manipulating joints in order to get them to crack isn’t always a-okay, your best bet is to just let them crack naturally. Cracking joints shouldn’t call for a doctor’s visit without symptoms (such as pain and swelling) present. It’s fine if you get the urge to crack joints that feel “stuck” and need relief—if there’s pain or swelling with it, though, it’s time to see a doc, Shrock says.

Otherwise, there are a few lifestyle factors that are particularly important for keeping your joints happy. One is a consistent exercise regimen. “Maintaining strong, functional joints requires frequent exercise, which helps to promote range of motion, flexibility, and strength in the muscles that support the joints,” Shrock explains. He suggests a goal of at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week. Walking, cycling, swimming, and yoga are all excellent forms of exercise for joint support. Maintaining a healthy weight also helps, since excess weight puts added strain on your joints—particularly your knees, hips, and ankles, he adds.

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Another must: proper posture, which ensures joint alignment and decreases the risk of pain and injury. “When you’re standing, walking, or sitting, pay attention to your posture, and keep your spine straight, chest high, and shoulders back,” Shrock says. Be especially critical of posture when exercising, particularly when performing high-impact activities and lifting weights. 

Finally, getting enough sleep (seven-plus hours each night) is important for the health, function, and repair of joints, Shrock adds. 

With all of these healthy habits in place, you probably don’t need to worry about popping your knuckles here and there or a knee that crackles (painlessly, of course!) when you squat.

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