Cracking your knuckles: debunked

I am a violist in Penn State’s Philharmonic Orchestra, and after a long two hour rehearsal, my fingers are often stiff and I’m just itching to crack my knuckles to relieve myself of the tension. There are some people who are chronic knuckle crackers, and then there are people like my mom (who freaks out and tells me I’ll get arthritis if I keep doing that). What I want to know is if there is actual scientific evidence that suggests cracking your knuckles is bad for your joints, or if it’s just a myth made up by people who get grossed out by the popping noise.

John Indalecio, a hand therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, believes there is not enough compelling scientific evidence to suggest that knuckle-cracking will cause arthritis. However, if a habit is formed, there is a chance that more problems could occur down the road. Sounds reasonable to me, but the first article I found was from Huffington Post, so I think I’ll need to look at the actual studies to see if the results support this claim.

A PLOS ONE study concludes, “Presently, the literature in this area is confusing in that the energy produced during joint cracking is though to exceed the threshold for damage[51], but habitual knuckle cracking has not been shown to increase joint degeneration [52]. Ultimately, by defining the process underlying joint cracking, its therapeutic benefits, or possible harms, may be better understood.” In a nutshell: making cracking your knuckles a habit has NOT been shown to cause an increase in joint issues. More experiments would need to be done in order to further assess the long-term effects.

What I’m wondering is if there has ever been a study examining the effect of knuckle-cracking on many different people considering the genetics one may have to make them more prone to joint or muscle issues. If you have a family history of arthritis or osteoporosis, for example, does the effect of cracking your knuckles worsen? Are there benefits to having certain types of people crack their knuckles to create these cavities in the finger joints?

Another thing- the PLOS ONE study was definitely very thorough, but the average person would find it difficult to get the big picture of what the scientists discovered. For so long, everyone believed (and some still believe) the sound of cracking knuckles came from air bubbles being popped, but this study proves otherwise. I think the information would be much more accessible to the general public and less likely to be misunderstood if another version of the study was published simplifying the findings and explaining what they mean for us.

6 thoughts on “Cracking your knuckles: debunked

  1. Celine Elizabeth Gosselin Post author

    I think cracking your knuckles each hour for such a long period of time is definitely excessive. Most people only crack their knuckles when they feel like they need to be cracked (for me, usually around once or twice a day). If you are trying to crack your knuckles when they don’t need to be, you’re just putting excess strain on your finger joints and will end up bending them in uncomfortable ways. If I were to conduct an experiment, I would see how long it takes the average person to feel like they need to crack their knuckles again to release tension and then have all of the people in the study crack their knuckles (or not, in the case of the control group) at that rate. In order to avoid any possible injury, maybe the test could only instruct the experimental group to crack their knuckles once a day and see if there is any difference in joint pain after a week.

  2. Celine Elizabeth Gosselin Post author

    I think it’s really funny that you mentioned people who are just going to believe whatever evidence fit in with their personal tastes or habits. The first person who commented on this blog stated that he/she thinks knuckle-cracking is disgusting, and then provided one link providing evidence supporting their preference/opinion. While it may be true that knuckle cracking can swell your hands, a) this blog was focused around the relationship between knuckle-cracking and arthritis, and b) I don’t think cracking your knuckles a few times a week would make your hands swell up. People who find a habit irritating will naturally present or support evidence that reinforces their views, and who knows? Maybe, because I am a knuckle cracker, I unwittingly selected studies for this blog supporting my opinion.
    I think this is the true strength of science, though- it is the conflicting opinions among us that cause further examination of a problem and a higher confidence rate.

  3. Grace Cuffel

    I’ve never been much of a knuckle-cracker, I’m always too scared to push them hard enough to the point of cracking, but when I do my Mom always tells me I’m going to get arthritis. I always thought it was a possibility without actually looking into facts because it just made sense to me. I very much agree when you say that genetics can most definitely have a strong influence on this situation, and can even compromise any experiments conducted in the future on this topic.

  4. Abigail Marie Young

    This topic has always fascinated me, so one day I did a little experiment on myself. I wanted to see if cracking knuckles actually caused pain, so I cracked my knuckles once every hour for a week. The first few days I felt no change, but by the end of the week my knuckles were not only harder to crack, but more painful to crack. That easily could have just been the constant stress on the muscles from the pressure on my hand, but it could also be because of the cracking itself. In any way I did get results, but I would really like to know if they were conclusive with the theory, maybe somebody could do an actual experiment on that.

  5. Rachel Coblentz

    It’s interesting that you mentioned the air popping theory at the end of your blog. The whole time that I was reading this post I was wondering if that was actually true or not. I think it is really important you mentioned many of the myths out there and debunked them. It shows that you really did your research. I suspect that until more studies are done, the debate will continue to rage on. If people like cracking their knuckles, they will argue that there is nothing wrong with it. If people hate it, they will find reasons on why it’s bad.

  6. amp6199

    I absolutely hate when people crack their knuckles. It actually makes me sick to my stomach, and I never do it myself. Harvard Health states that although knuckle cracking doesn’t cause arthritis, it can damage your hands in other ways. Knuckle cracking can reduce grip strength and swell up your hands. Therefore, I would not recommend cracking your knuckles, even if it doesn’t give you arthritis.

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