Is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad For You?

Is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad For You?

Does Cracking Your Knuckles Actually Cause Arthritis?

Like finger nails scraping down a chalk board, someone cracking their knuckles, or even worse their neck, can really rub people the wrong way. Much of the ill feeling towards someone cracking their knuckles comes from the belief that this action is damaging to their joints. So, is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad For You? If like me you are a fellow “knuckle cracker” you’ve probably been told numerous times to stop, or if you don’t you will get arthritis, but does this statement actually carry any weight or is it just an old wives’ tale?

What Causes That Cracking Sound?

Understanding if cracking your knuckles and joints is actually bad for you it is first important to understand where that noise is coming from. So, what is actually happening in the joints to cause that cracking, or popping sound? Well, when you pull, twist or bend your knuckles, the space around your joints increases while the pressure greatly decreases. This decreased pressure means the gases that exist in the synovial fluid (the fluid in your joints which nourishes, protects and helps the joints slide smoothly) turn into “microscopic bubbles” and these bubbles unite to form larger ones. When the fluid moves to fill the extra space around the knuckles as you pull, twist and bend them, these bubbles “pop” making that familiar cracking sound. The reason you can’t pop your knuckles continuously over and over again, is that once your joints have been “cracked” it takes at least 15-20 minutes for gases to dissolve back into the fluid and reform into the bubbles that can “pop”.
Worth mentioning here is that not all sounds in and around joints are of the same cause. Alternative causes of cracking sounds from joints can also be heard as tendons “snap” over tissues, this can occur due to minor adjustments in their gliding paths, such cracking can occur in relatively normal situations, yet may also occur related to injury, or arthritic conditions.

So, Is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad For You?

Will your face really stay like that if the wind changes? No! Which is exactly the same as the answer to the question, is cracking your knuckles bad for you? It is hypothetically possible that continual cracking of your knuckles over an extended period of time, could do damage by over stretching the capsule and ligaments surrounding the joints and create a kind of localized hypermobility at the joint. With the chronic stretching of the soft tissue structures around the joint impacting alignment and tension on muscles and tendons around the joint. However, as far as I am aware, this would not be the norm and most likely for this to occur it would require significant force being applied each time when cracking your knuckles and would need be performed on an extremely repetitive basis.
Research on the topic is somewhat limited. A study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, asked 329 participants, aged 50 to 89 years, to fill out a questionnaire about their right hands. Asking participants to state which joints they crack, the frequency of cracks, whether they have any symptoms of arthritis… Of the 215 surveys returned:

  • 43 of them cracked their knuckles
  • and of this group of 43 knuckle crackers, men were more likely than women to crack their knuckles.
  • the results from this study were that is was concluded, knuckle cracking is not associated with hand osteoarthritis.

It Hurts When I Crack My Knuckles, What should I do?

As mentioned above “painless” cracking of joints has no significant research to suggest it is harmful. However, common sense would suggest that the intentional and repetitive popping of your joints could be an issue when it produces pain. If popping your knuckles is causing pain, then it is possible there is some issues with the structures either in, or around the joint and therefore this would best be avoided. I feel it is worth while noting here that at least in my opinion, avoiding particularly vigorous knuckle cracking even when painless is sensible too.

Why Do Your Knuckles Feel Good After Cracking Them?

The cracking of your knuckles can relieve a build up of pressure in the joint and may lead to momentary soft tissue loosening, these changes following cracking your knuckles may help in relieving tension and relaxing the local soft tissues in the area making things feel “freer”. Cracking your knuckles can also trigger the release of local endorphins, which cause a temporary “buzz” similar to pain medication.

Should I Stop Cracking My Knuckles?

Generally there hasn’t been any significant research to indicate that knuckle cracking is either harmful, or beneficial. And more significantly to rebut any haters, knuckle cracking to date, HAS NOT been shown to cause arthritis. Personally I crack my knuckles from time to time and even I can appreciate it has the potential to be a really annoying sound to many. So if like me, you have been shamed into popping your knuckles in secret, rest at ease you will neither develop arthritis, go blind, or go to hell for doing so. There are worse habits out there, many of which I’m sure you probably also do, so I say, feel free to crack away with clear conscience.

Disclaimer: Sydney Physio Clinic does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products mentioned. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific advice or assistance regarding Is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad For You? should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, general practitioner, sports medicine specialist or physiotherapist.