The science behind your body's snaps, crackles, and pops.

By By Isadora Baum
Updated: May 11, 2018
Photo: Giphy

Whether it's from cracking your own knuckles or hearing a pop when you stand up after sitting for a while, you've likely heard your fair share of joint noises, especially in your knuckles, wrists, ankles, knees, and back. That little pop of a knuckle can be oh-so-satisfying-but, is it something to worry about? What's really going on when your joints make noise? We got the scoop.

What's with those noisy joints?

Good news: Cracking, creaking, and popping of joints is nothing to worry about and is totally harmless, says Timothy Gibson, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and medical director of the MemorialCare Joint Replacement Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. (Here's the scoop on when muscle soreness is a good or bad thing.)

But if all this joint cracking is harmless, what's with the scary noises? While it might be alarming, it's really just the natural result of things moving around inside your joints.

"The knee, for example, is a joint made up of bones that are covered with a thin layer of cartilage," says Kavita Sharma, M.D., a certified pain management physician in New York. Cartilage allows the bones to glide against one another smoothly-but sometimes the cartilage can get a bit rough, which causes the cracking sound as cartilage glides past one another, she explains.

The "pop" can also come from the release of gas bubbles (in the form of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen) in the fluid surrounding cartilage, says Dr. Sharma. Research published in PLOS One that looked into the finger cracking phenomenon confirmed the gas bubble theory with an MRI.

Is it safe to crack knuckles and joints?

You've got the green light: Go ahead and crack away. A proper (read: not worrisome) crack should feel like a gentle pull, but generally not be painful, says Dr. Sharma. And the loud crack isn't a concern, either, as long as no pain is present. Yep-you can even crack your knuckles multiple times in a row, and be A-OK, the docs say.

So next time someone yells at you for cracking your knuckles, throw some science in their face: A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found no difference in rates of arthritis between those who cracked their knuckles frequently and those who didn't. Boom.

The exception: "When pain and swelling are associated with the cracking, it may indicate a more serious problem such as arthritis, tendinitis, or a tear, and should be evaluated by your doctor," says Dr. Gibson. (FYI these bone and joint problems are common in active women.)

However, if there's no pain or swelling associated with the cracking, it's typically okay to hear cracking in most joints (self-induced or otherwise), with the exception of the neck and lower back. "The neck and lower back joints protect vital structures and it's best to avoid too much self-cracking unless observed by a medical professional," says Dr. Sharma. A chiropractor, for instance, can help crack these areas for relief.

"Occasional cracking of the neck and lower back is okay-as long as you have no other symptoms of weakness in the arms or legs or numbness/tingling like sciatica," she says. Cracking your lower back with these symptoms can lead to greater health and joint problems and put you in danger of injury.

Still, while it's fine to crack your neck or back on your own every now and then, you shouldn't make it a habit. With these delicate areas, it's best to get professionally cracked by a chiropractor or physician, if necessary, says Dr. Sharma.

Can you prevent joint cracking?

Health worries aside, it can be kind of annoying to hear your joints click and crack all day. "Stretching can sometimes help if a tight tendon is causing the popping," says Dr. Gibson. (Related: How to Increase Your Mobility) However, the best option to prevent noisy joints is simply to stay active throughout the day and to regularly exercise, says Dr. Sharma. "Movement keeps the joints lubricated and prevents the cracking." For a great non-weight-bearing (easy-on-the-joints) exercise, try low-impact activities, like swimming, she says. Another one of our favorites? This low-impact rowing machine workout that burns cals without banging up your body.

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