Joint Snapping and Cracking - Is It A Problem

Does Snapping Joints Cause Arthritis?

Finger snapping is very common. PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

Cracking, popping, or snapping joints is a common experience for many individuals. Some people make their joints crack, while others have cracking and creaking joints with normal activities. The good news is that there is no evidence that typical knuckle cracking or joint creaks will cause arthritis.

Causes of a Cracking, Creaking, or Popping Joint

Different conditions may cause a cracking joint, and the problem is not always clear.

In most cases, the exact cause of a crack joint cannot be determined. Some causes may include:

  • Gas Bubbles
    The slow accumulation of gases around a joint can cause the formation of tiny bubbles of gas. Joint cracking may occur when these gases are released.
  • Tendons or Ligaments
    Tendons and ligaments cross over the joints. These structures may pop or crack as they snap over the bony prominences around the joint.
  • Arthritis
    Damage to the joint surface, the cartilage, can cause cracking joints. However, this type of joint cracking usually is found in older patients who have known arthritis. It is uncommon for a patient's first complaint of arthritis to be joint cracking.

Does the joint cracking cause arthritis?

It's unlikely that joint cracking is a significant cause of arthritis. Joint cracking is usually painless, and so long as it does not cause pain, most doctors agree that you are unlikely to be doing any harm.

There are some conditions that can cause a joint cracking that need to be addressed, but these tend to cause symptoms of pain.

If you have joint cracking that causes pain, you should be evaluated by your doctor. Otherwise, you are not likely to be causing any problems, including arthritis, by your joint cracking.

Causes of Arthritis

There are certain conditions and activities that can lead to the development of arthritis. Some of these so-called 'risk factors' are things you can control, and others are things you are stuck with. Among the common causes of arthritis, are the following:

  • Age: As we get older, arthritis becomes more common. Joint cartilage is not made to last forever, and cartilage has very limited capacity to heal or regenerate. For this reason, once you lose cartilage, you are unlikely to ever get it back. That's why we focus so heavily on preventing the progression of arthritis.
  • Genetics: Our parents, or more precisely, our genetics are likely to blame for making certain individuals more likely to develop joint swelling and pain. Some people are born with cartilage that seems to last, and joints that don't wear out. Others have anatomy that leads to the development of early joint problems.
  • Body Weight: People who are heavier are much more likely to wear out their joints, especially in their knees, hips, and spine. Because the cartilage has to carry the added burden of the excess body weight, the cartilage is more likely to wear away.
  • Injury: Previous injury to the joint surface can cause damage to the joint cartilage that may not heal. The result of this damage may be the early onset of an arthritic joint. 

Sources:

Deweber K, et al. "Knuckle cracking and hand osteoarthritis" J Am Board Fam Med. 2011 Mar-Apr;24(2):169-74.

Tuan RS, Chen AF, Klatt BA. "Cartilage regeneration" J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2013 May;21(5):303-11.

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