This is an update to an article Jarlo published several years ago. This question comes up often, so we thought it was time to bring the conversation up to date.
Should I be concerned about the popping sound / clicking / noise from my joints?
What’s happening there?
There are many types of sounds elicited during the many motions we engage our bodies in, whether in specific exercise, or simply getting up in the morning.
Depending on who you ask, these joint noises should either be avoided like the plague, glossed over, or sought after like the Holy Grail. So, which is it?
Truthfully, it’s very difficult to say with great accuracy what’s happening, though experienced fitness and health professionals can make quality inferences. (Needless to say, the accuracy significantly diminishes if we’re not present to both hear and feel the sounds as they are happening).
That’s why it’s important for you to have an understanding of these noises, so you can determine whether it warrants a visit to your doctor or physical therapist.
Hey now, what’s that sound?
Perhaps the most common sound that people think of when they talk about how their body “pops,” is cavitation. The traditional explanation for the sound of “knuckles cracking” is the change in pressure of the synovial fluid in a joint.
A joint capsule surrounds all synovial joints and is a “closed” system filled with fluid, so any deformation would cause a change in pressure. Natural pockets of gas within the joint form a bubble and quickly collapses causing the sound. This is why you can’t crack your knuckles again immediately after you have done it once. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the gas to reabsorb.
Any synovial joint from your knuckles, elbows, spinal joints, and down to your ankles, can be “popped.”
As for the other sounds, repetitive “clicks” could be connective tissue out of its proper alignment or cartilaginous tissue damage such as torn meniscal flaps or other chondral tissue damage. It could also be a large nerve out of alignment as well, a common one is the ulnar nerve (inside of the elbow) which slips in/out the groove when you bend and straighten the elbow.
This is pretty common in people and isn’t too much of a concern, especially if there is no pain.
I’ve had patients tell me of other kinds of popping and “ripping” that occurs suddenly, with pain and subsequent swelling and bruising. This is probably scar tissue tearing, and depending on the situation it can be beneficial or problematic.
The “clunk” sound is an interesting phenomenon.
Often felt as a shift, and which may or may not accompany the louder pop. It’s often described as distinct from the “regular pop” that people describe, but it actually may be the same phenomenon, just louder and more noticeable.
It might be a true subluxation, in which the joint is off axis, and a particular movement shifts it back on axis. If this is true, than these sounds occur in what I would classify as unstable joints and the ones most in need of exercise training to strengthen and improve motor control.
This happens often in people that have repeated injuries in one area, or long term chronic issues.
Why does it feel good when a joint pops?
(Beware, lots of big words ahead).
Like we mentioned above when one of your joints is stretched beyond a certain point, the joint capsule is distended and you can hear a pop or clunk.
This stretch on the capsule stimulates Type III joint mechanoreceptors which cause a relaxation of surrounding muscles around the joint. So, if you had sensations of feeling stiff and tight, the ease and looseness you feel after the pop is probably because of this phenomenon.
Another theory is that natural painkillers (endogenous opiates) are released, thus the good feeling after someone cracks your back. These can be quite addictive and this is why many people keep cracking their back or keep going to see someone that will do it for them.
Whoa. That was a lot of technical jargon – it’s okay though, we’re done with that and you handled it like a champ.
Good, bad, ugly?
A very relevant question is whether this should be repeated, or even performed at all.
The usual warnings condemn your joints to arthritis, instability, or other such damage. Well, if it happens with regular movement and not forced, it’s a moot point. It’s not controllable, and most likely you aren’t doing yourself any damage.
However, repeated high force motions may not be the best thing to do to yourself.
So don’t do that.
It is a very big debate whether repetitive cracking of normal joints leads to damage and dysfunction, and the scientific research isn’t conclusive at all. But it is plausible to think that continual overstretching at the joint can impair motor control, and it is well known that repetitive abnormal stretching can lead to increased inflammation.
Another common phenomenon is for these noises to change over a period of time.
They can become louder, more frequent, less frequent, be accompanied by pain, or suddenly become pain free. This is probably because angles of pull and axes of motion can change with increased/decreased muscle strength and flexibility, and with other physical body tissue changes.
It’s very common for noises to appear and disappear during the course of an exercise program as your body changes and adapts to the activities.
Take Home Points about Popping Joints
So, here’s what you should remember:
- If the noise isn’t accompanied by pain, don’t worry too much. If there is consistent pain though, go get it checked out!
- If it happens from normal movement, it’s probably not a bad thing.
- However, it’s probably not a good idea to continually force that sound (i.e. repetitive cracking of knuckles), even if it produces a “good sensation.”
- Keep track of how your body feels (and sounds!) as you progress in your exercise regimen.
- There’s nothing wrong with moving and stretching out, just don’t be forceful or overdo it, especially if you aren’t warmed up.
Here’s some related articles about common problem areas:
- 6 Flexibility Tips For Hamstrings
- 8 Movements to Improve Your Hip Flexibility
- Training Related Injuries
Know anybody whose joints make noises best reserved for breakfast cereal? Be sure to share this article with anyone who can use it.