Is Cracking Your Joints Bad For You?

Snap, crackle and pop!

For some people, there's nothing quite as satisfying as the sound of a joint "cracking".

But could all that cracking be bad for your health?  To find out, we went to osteopath and director at Melbourne Osteopathy Dr Shane Buntman -- a man who basically spends his entire day cracking joints.

But before we can crack this question, we first need a little background about joints.

While many of us were brought up being told that if we cracked our knuckles we’d end up with arthritis, as Dr Buntman told ten daily, this is just a myth.

"Joint manipulation, as it's better known, isn't bad when it's prescribed for the right person, especially for conditions such as acute low back pain, headaches and neck pain," he says.

Here's what really happens when you crack your knuckles.

Is it normal?

Maybe you like to crack your knuckles. Or perhaps you have no control of the creaking sounds in your ankles as you climb stairs. Whatever the reason, if you’ve ever had popping joints, Dr Buntman says there’s no need to worry.

“People often think cracking joints is bone rubbing on bone. But, in fact, joint manipulation is a technique used regularly by osteopaths to improve mobility, flexibility and alignment, and ease the pain,” he says.

What causes the noise?

No one knows the exact reason for the sound, but as Dr Buntman explains, there are two main theories. The first is that the sound comes from the compression of nitrogen bubbles in the joint space. “When gas is released in the joint, the sound you hear is the bubble popping as the gas gets absorbs back into the joint,” he says.

The second theory is that the sound occurs as a result of a cavity formed in the joint fluid (also known as synovial fluid). “The sound itself occurs when the cavity develops quickly at the point of joint separation,” he explains.

Is it a sign of illness?

While there are various reasons for achy, breaky joints, Dr Buntman says it’s not thought to be directly related to any underlying health problems. “While there are many important signs and symptoms that would suggest there's an underlying illness, cracking joints isn’t one of them,” he says.

Can it cause damage?

Despite the old wives’ tale that cracking your knuckles will lead to long-term joint problems later in life, Dr Buntman says this is not the case. “There’s a popular belief that cracking or popping joints, especially knuckles, will lead to the development of arthritis and other joint problems, but research hasn’t conclusively demonstrated this,” he says.

The final verdict...

Cracking knuckles don't appear to cause or worsen arthritis. But as Dr Buntman explains, if the snapping and popping are accompanied by pain and swelling, see your GP, osteopath or orthopaedic specialist.  At least one study revealed that cracking your knuckles repeatedly could weaken the grip in your hands or result in soft tissue damage. So while it might not lead to serious illness, you may find it difficult to open a jar of Vegemite in years to come. 

Feature image: Getty. 

This post first appeared on May 27, 2018.