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All You Need to Know About Joint Cracking and Popping

Almost all of us must have experienced cracking of knuckles or an involuntary popping of the neck and knees. This is known as crepitus. Sometimes the sound is loud and perhaps a little unsettling. In fact, many believe that joint cracking may cause a medical condition like arthritis. The truth is that they are usually harmless, says Dr Vijay Kumar Sohanlal – a senior specialist in joint replacement and orthopaedics at MGM healthcare and Mahi Clinic – Chennai.


There can be several causes for crepitus but usually, it’s not a symptom of a bone condition. However, if you notice an increase in its frequency or feel any pain, then it must be investigated further. Some of the causes include:

Trapped Nitrogen

Our joints are lubricated by synovial fluid which is made of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. When you crack your knuckles, for example, nitrogen bubbles are compressed releasing a pop sound. This action is known as cavitation for which, there’s no reason to be concerned.

Muscles and Tendons

Sometimes muscles and tendons may snap over bony projections of joints and cause crepitus. There’s also a possibility that a scar tissue is causing it. This may be painful and must be diagnosed and treated.

Cartilage Loss

Ageing may cause loss of cartilage, exposing the bones to rub against each other. When this happens, there is no protection against friction between bones. A meniscus tear can also happen during stretching or some other physical activity. In either case, the bones may grind against each other and may cause a cracking sound. This is accompanied by other symptoms like swelling, stiffness and mobility issues. In such situations, you can avoid further problems by consulting a specialist.


Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can lead to cartilage wear and tear. When the bones rub against each other, there may be a cracking sound. This may be accompanied by pain.

Tips to Control Crepitus

Sometimes it’s just a habit of cracking your knuckles, neck or other joints. If you wish to get over the habit, then you must observe when and why you do it. Once you better understand the reasons behind your habit, it’s easier to try and change the behaviour.

You may be staying in the same position for long durations and crepitus occurs when you move. To avoid this, it’s recommended that you take short breaks and move around. This will reduce stiffness of the neck or back and the need to crack them to get some relief from stiffness. Stretching and exercising may also help.

If you have mobility issues and pain, it’s best to consult an orthopaedic doctor and get a proper diagnosis. The doctor may recommend physical therapy to strengthen your muscles and reduce swelling. R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compression and elevation) treatment along with pain medication and non-steroidal injections may be prescribed. You may be advised to make lifestyle changes related to your diet and weight management.

However, if the underlying problem is of a severe nature, then surgical intervention may be required. For instance, arthroscopic surgery can be very effective in a meniscus tear.

Seeking Care

As mentioned earlier, cracking and popping of joints is usually not a serious issue. However, when you experience pain and swelling or mobility issues along with crepitus, then you must consult an orthopaedic specialist. Such symptoms are usually due to a bigger problem like a meniscus tear, arthritis and so on. Getting a proper diagnosis and treatment of the main problem will set you up on a recovery path.

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