Is Joint Popping and Cracking a Serious Problem?

Male athlete wearing knee brace
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Do your joints make noise when you move? Knees, ankles, fingers, and shoulders can all make cracking or popping noise from time to time. While it may sound like something is terribly wrong with the joint, in most cases joint noise is nothing to worry about.

Crepitus is the medical term that refers to joint noises, such as popping and cracking and creaking, particularly in the knees.

Such joint noise can be quite disturbing and cause concern, especially when it shows up suddenly. In most cases, these noises are not indicative of any underlying problem. Most joint crepitus, cracking, and popping usually has a bark that is worse than its bite. Joint noises often persist for years without any significant problems developing.

Most physicians agree that if there is no pain associated with the annoying joint cracks or pops, you can assume it is being caused by the soft tissue in a joint and is not something to worry much about.

In the knee, for example, cracking or popping may occur if the patella rubs on the adjacent tissues. Other causes of joint noise are the snapping of tendons or scar tissue over a prominence or something referred to as cavitation. Cavitation frequently occurs in synovial joints when a small vacuum forms in the synovial fluid and a rapid release produces a sharp popping or cracking sound.

Joint Noises That Cause Pain

Any joint popping or cracking that is associated with pain may indicate damage to the articulating surfaces of the joint, particularly if it occurs with an injury. Such pops, cracks, creaks, and clicks could be due to tissue damage, such as a tear in the meniscus of the knee, but are sometimes due to inflamed or overly tight tissues which may snap over the other structures in the joint as the knee bends and straightens.

If you hear joint pops and clicks with no associated pain in a joint, you generally don't need to worry, but you may want to begin some conditioning and stretching exercises to improve the overall integrity and flexibility of the joint. Stronger muscles will take the weight off of the joint and help reduce the pressure on the articulating surfaces.

If there is pain along with those joint noises, you may have signs of structural damage building in the joint. It might be wise to see a physician for an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan to help prevent further symptoms.

3 Sources
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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.