What Causes Popping Joints?

When Should You Be Concerned?

An elderly woman suffering from joint pain.
An elderly woman suffering from joint pain. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

As you are walking, squatting, or going up or down stairs, have you ever felt your knee "pop?" As you reached for something on an upper shelf, have you experienced that popping sensation in your elbow or shoulder joint?

Popping can occur in any joint. Flexing or rotating your ankle, opening and closing your hand, or moving your neck can cause popping, cracking, or grating. Often, it is something you feel rather than hear.

Other times, there is a sound associated with the popping.

Are Popping Joints Normal?

At the moment your joints pop, you may wonder exactly what is causing it. It's not an uncommon phenomenon. Generally, it is considered normal and nothing to be concerned about, especially if it occurs infrequently and without pain.

It can be hard to pinpoint what is causing the popping sensation. There are a few possible causes of popping. It is believed that ligaments can cause the sensation as they tighten when a joint moves. It also can be related to a tendon snapping around a joint.

Popping joints can also be due to rough joint surfaces from cartilage loss and osteophytes associated with osteoarthritis.

It is theorized that when knuckles are cracked intentionally, nitrogen bubbles inside the synovial (joint) fluid escape and cause popping. Though not fully explained, often the noise and popping increase soon after a joint surgery, according to literature on the subject.

Do Popping Joints Ever Need Attention?

Although it may seem like popping is deserving of attention or treatment, there is nothing that needs to be done unless the popping is tied to other, more concerning symptoms, such as pain and swelling. If you are losing range of motion in the joint that pops or if the joint locks when it pops, you should have it evaluated.

Popping joints are not necessarily predictive of future problems.

Be aware of what you are doing when the popping occurs. Is there a pattern or does the popping occur randomly? Does the popping occur daily or infrequently? Is it annoying or does it worry you? These are matters that you should discuss with your doctor. Expect to be told not to worry about it unless it is associated with other symptoms, especially pain.


Johns Hopkins Sports Medicine Patient Guide to Joint Cracking and Popping. Orthopaedic Surgery. Johns Hopkins. 

All About Osteoarthritis. Lane and Wallace. Oxford University Press 8/11/2012.

Continue Reading