I hear it time and time again, not only because I am a culprit myself, but also because it’s a pretty common habit among people my age. The sound is a familiar one, and every time I hear someone make it with their body, I have to do the same. If you haven’t figured it out by now (and it you failed to notice the title) I’m talking about joint cracking. This topic hits close to home because I have a weird talent: I can pretty much pop and crack every joint in my body (too much information?), and just as I was cracking my fingers after finishing an essay, I thought to myself. Is it true what they say about cracking your joints? Will intentionally making things click and pop really lead to arthritis or osteoporosis when we get older?
The answer: No. At least, it isn’t likely to.
Believe it or not, joint cracking (the most common being cracking your knuckles) is still an unexplained phenomenon. There have been many tests to try to determine why we crack our joints–whether it be intentional or not–without pain, but there are only a few theories that attempt to explain the reason behind why a sound is made. According to Johns Hopkins, joint cracking could be the result of “ligaments stretching and releasing” or “by the compression of nitrogen bubbles in the spaces of the joints.” Adding to that, the Library of Congress states that the sound a person hears when a joint clicks or snaps is due to gas build-up in the synovial fluid that acts as a lubricant between joints. In this fluid is oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen which, when popped rapidly releases and forms bubbles.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: if we know so little about cracking joints, how do we know for sure that it doesn’t cause arthritis and other joint-related issues? Well, we really don’t, but the studies that state joint cracking doesn’t cause arthritis is much stronger than the studies connecting the two. In my search I could only find two an article which highlighted two studies that had any causal links between arthritis and joint cracking, however, neither was very strong. One by the British Medical Journal studied the behaviors of one man in older age, and the other by the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers simulated knuckle cracking and stated that “the energy used to crack your knuckles is enough to damage the cartilage in your joints.”
On the other hand, three other studies within that same article, which can also be viewed in more depth here and here argued the opposite. One by Robert Stuart Swezey took 28 nursing home patients that could recall if they had once cracked their knuckles and then x-rayed their hands, finding no link between the two. Another by Annals of Rheumatic Disease took 300 randomized habitual knuckle crackers and found that none of them had arthritis or osteoporosis. While the third study took two groups: one with osteoporosis and another without, then after asking whether each group had cracked their knuckles and how often, they found no connection, just like the other two.
So overall, we’ll never really know why we crack our joints without pain or why they make a sound in the first place. However, we can be pretty sure that it will have no effect on how well our body functions in the future. I know I will continue to crack away, but maybe I’ll try to be a little more conscious of it. After all, correlation doesn’t equal causation and chance is always a factor. Who knows, a discovery might be made one day that states the exact opposite, and by then it will be too late.