Cracking and Popping in Joints
By Kerri Gilbert, PT, DPT
Cracking and Popping in Joints: Should you be Concerned?
Cracking, popping, and grinding of joints can cause some concern in patients who are experiencing injury due to fear of potential worsening or new injury development. However, for others, popping joints gives pain relief and reduced pressure to improve motion. So who is right?
Clinicians are frequently asked about popping and clicking in joints, usually due to patients’ fear of joint pathology and further injury. The common follow-up question to these concerns is if the pop was painful. It is generally a good sign if the pop was not painful and should not raise concern for that patient. Some of our joints are more disposed to cracking and popping noises than others. The audible pop is usually due to cavitation in which two joint surfaces are minimally separated, causing gas to be released from the joint space. Several researchers believe painless popping and cracking within joints is a sign of good joint movement and a well lubricated joint space.
If the patient experienced a painful pop, and it was precipitated by an event, especially trauma, this should be further evaluated for potential damage to ligaments or muscular structures around the joint. A good example of this is a patient who recently twisted his or her ankle and is now experiencing painful and regular popping in the affected ankle. This could be due to moderate or severe damage to the supportive ligaments of the ankle and may require immobilization in order to heal and protect from further injury.
For those patients who experience pain relief from popping and cracking their joints I suggest proceeding with caution in order to avoid becoming a chronic popper. If frequent and daily popping is required to reduce pain and stiffness the next step should be figuring out what is causing the pain and stiffness in the first place. A common example of this is patients who crack their backs. Yes, temporary relief can be achieved with cracking, however the root of the issue is most likely resolved with exercise, attention to posture and body mechanics, and stabilization training.
To conclude, cracking within joints is common and frequently harmless in most patients. However, if a recent traumatic injury or event occurred and subsequent painful cracking and popping is experienced. Lastly, it is important to be mindful of our bodies, remain aware of new occurrences or changes, and KEEP MOVING!
Do you crack your back because you have more back pain?
Read more about low back pain here: