We’ve all experienced it: Knees that snap when we stand up, a neck that cracks when we turn our head and ankles that pop when we rotate them.
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Often, joint cracking can be loud – and perhaps a little disconcerting. It’s no wonder that many people think there might be something wrong with their joints when they hear them pinging away.
Creaking and snapping joints might be annoying, but they usually are nothing to worry about, says orthopedic surgeon Kim L. Stearns, MD.
“It’s a normal, common occurrence,” he says.
But if the constant cracking is coupled with consistent pain or swelling, that can be a sign that something is wrong. That’s the time to see a doctor, Dr. Stearns says.
“As long as it’s not painful, joint noise is OK,” Dr. Stearns says. “If there’s pain, you may have an injury then that requires treatment.”
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Why do joints make noise?
Many people notice that their joints seem to make more noise as they get older. There’s a good reason for that.
“The older you get, the more noise your joints can make, because some of your cartilage wears away as part of the normal aging process,” Dr. Stearns says. “Then these surfaces get a little rougher and so you get more noise as they rub against each other.”
And joint sounds can come and go, depending on how you position your body when you sit and sleep, and how you use your body when you move, Dr. Stearns says.
Cracking, popping joints are so common that Dr. Stearns says his patients ask him about them just about every day.
“It’s a common question,” Dr. Stearns says. “The bottom line is joints make noise.”
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What’s that sound?
There are a few reasons why your joints snap and crack. For example, if you’re at the gym doing repetitive exercises, such as lifting weights or pushups, you might notice a clicking or soft snapping sound each time you bend your arm or leg.
This sound usually indicates that a muscle is tight, and is rubbing and causing friction around the bone, Dr. Stearns says. The sound also could be coming from tendons rubbing over the bone.
In that case, try gentle stretching, and the snapping should decrease or disappear.
Dr. Stearns says many of his patients report these kinds of sounds coming from their shoulders
“The noisiest joint is the shoulder because there are so many moving parts and so many tendons that move over bones,” he says.
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When you crack your knuckles, the sound is coming from the compression of nitrogen bubbles that naturally occur in the spaces of the joints, Dr. Stearns says.
The cracking is the sound of gas being released from the joint, an action called cavitation, Dr. Stearns says. The sound is not a cause for concern.
And despite what your mom said, you’re not going to make your knuckles too big or develop arthritis by cracking them.
“The belief that cracking your knuckles is bad for your joints is an old wives’ tale,” Dr. Stearns says. “My mother used to tell me don’t crack your knuckles, but sorry, Mom, there’s no science to say it’s bad for your joints.”
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How to avoid creaky joints
One way to avoid creaking joints is to get up and move as much as you can during the day, Dr. Stearns says.
“We say motion is lotion – the more you move, the more your body lubricates itself,” Dr. Stearns says. “When you’ve been sitting or lying around, fluid in the joints doesn’t move. The more active you are, the more your joints lubricate themselves.”