The Popping Sounds Made By Cracking Knuckles Has Been Studied For Decades
An age-old urban legend that claims cracking ones knuckles will lead to arthritis may be old in every middle school childs repertoire, but a look at the scientific literature finds that there is little evidence to suggest any level of truth to this myth.
Knuckle or metacarpophalangeal joint-cracking is a manipulation of the joint, either made through movement or by applying force. As a result, the characteristic crack, pop, clunk, clink, crepitus, or snap sound may issue from the knuckles.
For decades, medical experts werent exactly sure what caused the telltale popping sound, and it is largely unclear whether there is any therapeutic benefit to cracking the knuckles, or if popping joints may be detrimental. Generally speaking, however, there is little evidence to suggest that cracking the knuckles leads to arthritis. But to understand why it is not widely believed that cracking the knuckles will result in arthritis, we must first understand what creates that distinctive sound in the first place.
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Knuckle Cracker Or Not Heres What You Need To Know About Arthritis
Have you ever had someone tell you that cracking your knuckles will lead to arthritis?
While this notion has been widely accepted, there is no known correlation between knuckle cracking and arthritis. Whether you are a knuckle cracker or not, your chance of developing arthritis is high.
Arthritis affects nearly 30 percent of adults aged 45-64 around the world, making arthritis the leading cause of disability for adults in the U.S. Out of the 47.5 million U.S. adults with disabilities, 8.7 million of them report having arthritis.
Considering the large grip arthritis already has on older Americans, it is important to understand the symptoms, treatments, and preventative habits to prepare for these changes when they inevitably occur.
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Will Cracking Your Knuckles Cause Arthritis
The Department of Orthopedics noted there is no evidence that knuckle cracking causes arthritis. However, repeatedly cracking your knuckles may cause temporary soreness of the joint. Knuckles are the joints between your fingers and your hands. These joints are surrounded and lubricated by synovial fluid, a thick, clear liquid. When you crack your knuckles, youre causing the bones of the joint to pull apart. This causes a gas bubble to form in the joint. The cracking or popping sound you hear is the breaking of the adhesive seal in the joint.
The repetitive motion of cracking your knuckles wears down the joints and their protective cushioning. This means individuals who currently have osteoarthritis, caused by the breakdown of cartilage in the joints, could worsen their symptoms by cracking their knuckles repeatedly. However, cracking your knuckles plays no role in rheumatoid arthritis, which is caused when a persons own immune system attacks their joints.
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What Does Happen When You Crack Your Knuckles
Dr. Fackler explains that the pressure applied to knuckles “causes vapor pockets” within the fluid inside the joints. This then “creates a vacuum that sucks the joint apart rapidly,” causing a popping sound in the knuckles.
So why do so many people find relief in cracking their knuckles? Cracking your knuckles “feels as if it relieves tension in the joints,” Dr. Fackler says. “When that phenomenon happens, it causes a distraction of the joint and separates the joint for a brief second. If traction is applied to the joint, it feels as if it loosens up and is more mobile.”
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What Is Knuckle Cracking
Image Credits- The Washington Post
Something that most of us have done all our childhood and have been scolded for, knuckle cracking is pressing the finger joints in such a way that they produce a cracking or pop sound. This sound is produced when you pull or bend the finger joints which creates some space within the joint capsule by sucking the synovial joint.
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Conflicting Research On Knuckle Cracking And Arthritis
Research studies comparing knuckle crackers’ to non-crackers have had mixed results.1Yildizgören MT, Ekiz T, Nizamogullari S, Turhanoglu AD, Guler H, Ustun N, Kara M, Özçakar L. Effects of habitual knuckle cracking on metacarpal cartilage thickness and grip strength. Hand Surg Rehabil. 2017 Feb 36:41-43. doi: 10.1016/j.hansur.2016.09.001. Epub 2016 Oct 11. PubMed PMID: 28137441 A couple of studies have reported an association between knuckle cracking and hand arthritis.4Watson P, Hamilton A, Mollan R. Habitual joint cracking and radiological damage. BMJ 1989 299:1566.,5Watson P, Kernohan WG, Mollan RA. A study of the cracking sounds from the metacarpophalangeal joint. Proc Inst Mech Eng 1989 203:10918. Others found no significant connection.6Deweber K, Olszewski M, Ortolano R. Knuckle cracking and hand osteoarthritis. J Am Board Fam Med 2011 24:16974.,7Castellanos J, Axelrod D. Effect of habitual knuckle cracking on hand function. Ann Rheum Dis. 1990 49:308309. doi:10.1136/ard.49.5.308
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So Nothing To Worry About
Cracking your knuckles isnt entirely risk-free. There is some evidence that it can, if youre unlucky, cause injury to the tendonsthe thick, fibrous material that connects muscles to the bonesas applying pressure to the joint can cause these to tear. Although its rare, its still a risk.
The biggest risk if you crack your knuckles though is that people around you are going to wince and try and avoid your company.
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Does Cracking Other Body Parts Cause Arthritis
Aside from the finger joints, many people may crack or pop other joints of their body as a habit.
While it may not give you arthritis, cracking your joints is not always advisable, especially when concerning your neck or back.
There is no conclusive evidence of the precise damage cracking your neck can cause, but due to the risks of injury, you should only get your back or neck adjusted by a licensed chiropractor or physiotherapist.
Additionally, if you are cracking other joints for relief or to deal with pain, contact your doctor to investigate any underlying problem.
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What Causes The Cracking Sound While Cracking Knuckles
Before we go for learning about the causes for the cracking sound while cracking knuckles, let us know about something called the Synovial membrane and Synovial fluid.
Our joint, including the knuckles are surrounded by the Synovial membrane which is a membrane forming a capsule around the ends of our bones. Synovial fluid is the fluid which remains inside the synovial membrane and acts as a lubricant and shock absorber so that your bones do not grind together while you move.
Now, when we Crack our knuckles or any other joint holding the Synovial membrane and the synovial fluid, it expands the space present between the bones and thus creates negative pressure that draws the synovial fluid in to the new gap. The cracking or the popping sound and the feeling which one experiences while cracking knuckles is that which is caused due to the influx of the synovial fluid in to the new gap.
Let us take a look on some of other suggested causes for the cracking sound produced during cracking knuckles.
- The cracking or popping sound occur when there forms bubbles in joints as they are pulled apart while cracking knuckles.
- Rapid stretching of ligaments surrounding the synovial membrane in the knuckles are believed to produce the cracking sound
- Some suggestions also include that the within joint adhesion are broken while cracking knuckles.
Why Do My Knuckles Hurt If I Do Not Crack Them
The knuckles can experience stress throughout the day as we use our hands. This can lead to fatigue or tension in the knuckles and the feeling that they need relief.
Cracking your knuckles may create the feeling of relieving tension in the joints. As cracking your knuckles causes the joint to separate for a brief moment, it may feel as though the joint is looser or more mobile.
Joint pain is common and can have many causes. These causes can include more serious underlying conditions, such as arthritis or an injury.
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Question: If You Have Arthritis Can Cracking Knuckles / Joints Make It Worse
Answer: No. However theoretically knuckle cracking in patients with weak or damaged joints due to arthritis could potentially lead more easily to ligament injury or acute trauma to the joints.
Founded in 1998, the Arthritis Center at Johns Hopkins is dedicated to providing quality education to patients and healthcare providers alike.
What Happens When You Crack Your Fingers
Researchers have been able to put these hypotheses to bed by discovering what exactly is going on when you snap-crackle-pop your fingers and knuckles. There is actually a medical term for cracking your joints, and its called articular release meaning you are releasing a sensation of pressure, creating relief after cracking the joint. Youre not breaking anything nothing is detaching.
When you crack your fingers, you are stretching the joint past its degree of usual rotation, but not past its anatomic barrier. In other words, you need something else to push it to that point, such as using your other hand to pull back the fingers or to squeeze the knuckles.
Researchers have reported that the cracking sound is due to a sudden release of gaseous bubbles from fluid in the joint. This mixture of gas and liquid is thought to be what causes the feeling of pressure in the first place.
When the joint is cracked, the pressure is released which leaves a feeling of relief, as well as a more comfortable range of motion. Most people dont feel this pressure in their fingers or other joints, so they have difficulty understanding what that pressure feels like.
And because it doesnt feel like pain, its difficult to describe the feeling to someone else. Suffice it to say that the pressure gives the sensation of a slight tension, and the tension is relieved when the joint is pushed or pulled, which often creates this cracking sound.
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The Truth And The Myth Behind The Cracking Knuckles Debate
Cracking your knuckles may aggravate the people around you, but it probably won’t raise your risk for arthritis. That’s the conclusion of several studies that compared rates of hand arthritis among habitual knuckle-crackers and people who didn’t crack their knuckles.
The “pop” of a cracked knuckle is caused by bubbles bursting in the synovial fluid the fluid that helps lubricate joints. The bubbles pop when you pull the bones apart, either by stretching the fingers or bending them backward, creating negative pressure. One study’s authors compared the sudden, vibratory energy produced during knuckle cracking to “the forces responsible for the destruction of hydraulic blades and ship propellers.”
Even if knuckle cracking doesn’t cause arthritis, there’s still good reason to let go of the habit. Chronic knuckle-cracking may lead to reduced grip strength. And there are at least two published reports of injuries suffered while people were trying to crack their knuckles.
For more information on keeping your hand healthy, nimble, and strong, buy Hands: Strategies for Strong, Pain-Free Hands, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
What The Research Says About Knuckle Cracking
Several studies have been done to determine if knuckle cracking is associated with arthritis. To date, no link has been found.
In one report, researchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences examined a group of 215 people. Twenty percent of them said they cracked their knuckles regularly.
Results showed 18.1 percent of those participants who cracked their knuckles and 21.5 percent of those who didnt had arthritis in their hands. The investigators concluded that the chance of having arthritis was about the same in both groups.
In 1998, Dr. Donald Unger performed an informal study that was published as a letter to the editor in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism. As part of his experiment, the doctor cracked the knuckles on his left hand at least twice a day for 50 years, while leaving the knuckles on his right hand alone to serve as a control.
Dr. Unger estimated that the knuckles on his left hand were cracked at least 36,500 times. In his letter, he concluded that after 50 years, neither of his hands showed symptoms of arthritis, and there were no differences between the two hands.
The results of a study published in 2017 agreed with Dr. Ungers conclusions. Researchers found knuckle crackers had the same level of physical function as those who didnt crack their knuckles.
While research overwhelming suggests that knuckle cracking doesnt lead to arthritis, the following can increase your risk of developing the condition:
- a previous joint injury
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What About Other Health Problems
OK, so cracking your knuckles doesnt cause arthritis. But is it bad for you in other ways?
There is no evidence that the process of cracking the knuckles can cause arthritis, but rarely it can damage the tendons that connect the muscle to the bones, said Dr. Scott Zhine, an internist and rheumatologist in Dallas.
Indeed, the Harvard Health publication states that there have been occasional reports of injuries related to too vigorous cracking of the finger joints, but emphasizes that these are extreme exceptions. A 1990 study also found that cracking knuckles may be associated with swollen hands and lower grip strength.
Still, these potential negative effects appear to be extremely rare. The real concern may simply be related to psychological aspects of the habit.
There is no appreciable harm caused by this activity other than the nuisance it tends to cause among people nearby, Hyland said. Many people feel a sense of relief, albeit short-lived, after cracking their joints, which suggests that joint tightening may create a certain sense of discomfort for them. This cycle of tightening, cracking, tightening, etc. may promote a habit that is difficult for some to break.
And no medical experts declare any health advantages for endless joint cracking.
While it may be comforting for some people and used by others to deal with stressful situations, there is no evidence to suggest that it is good for joints, Ahiorobo said.
Will I Get Arthritis From Cracking My Knuckles
Now, heres the good news
There is no scientific evidence that cracking your knuckles will have any adverse effect on youwhich basically means that cracking your knuckles isnt proven to lead to joint conditions like arthritis.
In fact, one study on knuckle cracking actually concludes that that habit is quite harmless after conducting experiments on himself. Over his entire lifetime, he regularly cracked knuckles on one hand and tracked its condition using x-rays over the span of decades. The study showed that there are no differences between his left or right hand. This was supported by a larger study who concluded the same thing.
That said, compulsive knuckle crackers arent completely off the hook.
Think of what it takes to get that satisfying crack. Bending your fingers forward and back, pulling it forcefully to get a pop, twisting and turning joints at odd anglesall these can actually take its toll on the joint and cause the cartilage to wear away over time when its done constantly.
Additionally, one study conducted back in the 90s found that people who regularly cracked their knuckles actually had weaker grip strengthon top of the possibility, albeit rare, of injuring yourself in your attempt to get a good pop.
Even if cracking knuckles is unlikely to cause arthritis, theres still good reason to stop the habit.
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Question: Are There Any Side Effects To Cracking Knuckles
There is no evidence that cracking knuckles causes any damage such as arthritis in the joints. However, a couple of reports in the medical literature are available associating knuckle cracking with injury of the ligaments surrounding the joint or dislocation of the tendons which improved with conservative treatment. A study found that after many years of cracking habitual knuckle crackers may have reduced grip strength compared with people not cracking their knuckles.
What Is Knuckle Arthritis
Knuckle arthritis is less common than arthritis affecting the other smaller joints in the hand or the joint where the thumb joins the wrist . The most common knuckle arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. In this situation, the joint lining produces chemical factors that inflame and destroy the cartilage and soft tissue, such as ligaments and tendons. The result is that the joint surfaces are destroyed and the other fingers drift towards the little finger. The causes may include:
- Age: The older we get, the more likely we are to develop arthritis. Over time, our cartilage that cushions and lubricates your joints wear down, eventually leading to arthritis.
- Genetics: Some people are genetically predisposed to developing thumb arthritis. The estimated onset time of thumb arthritis can usually be determined by family medical history.
- Gender: Women are more disposed to knuckle arthritis.
- Previous injury to the wrist or the area surrounding knuckles and finger
If the pain starts to interfere with daily activities of daily living, then a visit with a hand surgeon could be helpful. The diagnosis is usually confirmed using plain x-rays. Special x-rays are also helpful to look carefully at the metacarpal head, particularly in milder cases.
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