What causes joint cracking?

Functional medicine

Does joint cracking completely irk you or does it satisfy you? The world is divided on this but recent research is at least able to answer some of the other pressing questions around joint cracking. There has been much debate around what causes the sound and while it is not irrefutably proven the most accepted consensus is that the joint cracking sound comes from the rapid development of an air cavity inside the joint fluid. It was previously believed that sound came from bursting air bubbles but by cracking knuckles inside an MRI, recent research was able to show that the joint cracking sound actually begins before that occurs (MacDonald, J; 2015). What is Crepitus?  Crepitus, also known as crepitation, is any grinding, creaking, cracking, grating, crunching, or popping that occurs when moving a joint. The term can also be used to refer to other conditions, such as lungs crackling from respiratory illnesses and bones grating after fractures. The sound associated with crepitus may be muffled or it may be loud enough for other people to hear. People can experience crepitus at any age, but joint cracking becomes more common as people get older (Brakke, R; 2016).

Is joint cracking a sign of arthritis?

Joint cracking can be but is not necessarily a sign of arthritis. Dr. Donald Ungar famously performed a simple experiment to prove this. He habitually performed joint cracking in one hand whilst not in the other for 50 years. This did not cause arthritis (MacDonald, J; 2015). Arthritis—typically either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis— causes a joint’s articular cartilage to degenerate. While arthritis often leads to pain, not everyone with joint degeneration will experience it. When a joint’s cartilage degenerates, the joint is no longer adequately protected against friction and impacts. In addition, the loss of cartilage can alter the joint’s biomechanics and cause bones to grind against one another. These changes can result in crepitus. Many people experience crepitus in their knees. People can also get crepitus in other joints, such as the hip, shoulder, neck and spine, which are frequently affected by arthritis(Brakke, R; 2016). Joint cracking during exercise. Should I stop lifting weights?  Any movement of the joints can cause joint cracking. You may experience this particularly in your shoulders and knees when lifting weights. You may also experience this more as you get older. Generally, this is not cause for concern and it is only necessary to see a doctor when you experience pain during joint cracking. If you are not experiencing pain you can safely continue with your gym routine as we know that joint cracking is not a direct cause of arthritis or any other joint degeneration (Guttierrez, DM; 2019). How does joint cracking play out in relation to age? Joint cracking is known to get worse with age but is not necessarily an indication or cause of arthritis. There is no known consensus on why joint cracking gets worse with age, but it is speculated to be the result of natural joint degeneration (MacDonald, J; 2015). Is joint cracking OK in your back?  Joint cracking in your back, like other areas of your body is not proven to cause or be a sign of arthritis. It may even provide instant relief to pressure built up in your back. It has been speculated that joint cracking in your back can stunt growth. This is a myth. Cracking your back relieves pressure between spinal discs, which isn’t related to growth. Instead, growth occurs at the epiphyseal plate in long bones. Rarely, cracking your back causes a slipped disc, or upsets an existing one by irritating it or moving it in the wrong direction. You should exercise caution when cracking your back if you have an existing disc or vertebral injury as it could exacerbate your symptoms (Minnis, G; 2019). What foods help with joint cracking?   While there is no miracle food that will cure joint cracking, arthritis or any other joint degeneration, eating anti-inflammatory foods may help increase the health of your joints. In general, you want to stick with food that are as natural as possible and get a regular amount of movement (exercise) to keep you r joint sin tip top shape.  A health non-sedentary lifestyle is key (Jennings, K; 2014). Here are some foods that can assist in this journey: 

  1. Cherries
  2. Red peppers
  3. Canned salmon
  4. Oatmeal
  5. Turmeric
  6. Walnuts
  7. Kale

More advice about joint cracking   Dr Matt Le Roux works with a variety of concerns, ranging from acute, chronic pain and complex injuries to nutritional, lifestyle, and performance enhancements. He is specialised in Sports Chiropractic. To get in touch, visit our contact page. References

  1. MacDonald, J; 2015. What Happens When You Crack Your Knuckles? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5574844/
  2. Brakke, R; 2016. What Is Crepitus? https://www.arthritis-health.com/types/general/what-crepitus
  3. Guttierrez, DM; 2019. Why Do My Joints Crack When I’m Lifting Weights? https://www.livestrong.com/article/434645-why-do-my-joints-crack-when-im-lifting-weights/
  4. Minnis, G; 2019. Is Cracking Your Back Bad for You? https://www.healthline.com/health/is-it-bad-to-crack-your-back
  5. Jennings, K; 2014. Eat Right to Maintain Healthy Joints. https://www.webmd.com/arthritis/features/joints-food

Dr. Matt le Roux is a man of many talents: chiropractor, sports scientist and functional medicine practitioner. His science-based approach motivates him to explore the synergy between health and performance that changes the way you move, live, train, think, and eat.

Dr Matt le Roux

Chiropractor, Functional medicine practitioner

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