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Joints Making Noise?

A common question we hear many patients ask at Made2Move is “My (insert joint here) always pops. Is this bad?” The first thing our therapists would ask in response to this question is: Is the noise painful, limiting your mobility, or happening with every rep?” If the answer is no to all of these, then there is no real reason for concern.

Common “noisy” body parts are the knees, hips, elbows, ankles, and shoulders. Dr. Stearns, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, states, “Creaking and snapping joints might be annoying, but they usually are nothing to worry about...It’s a normal, common occurrence.” Dr. Stearns notes that these noises are especially common in the shoulders and knees because of all the moving parts and high level of mobility these joints possess.

The medical term for the popping, clicking, or cracking noises that joints make is crepitus. Crepitus is common upon waking up in the morning (ankles, hips, and knees clicking as you walk from bed to the bathroom) and is also the same noise heard when you crack your knuckles. What causes crepitus? Is crepitus going to lead to arthritis? What if my noisy joint IS painful? Below we will delve into the answers to these questions.

Why do my knees/ankles/hips/shoulders pop?

There are two main causes for non-painful joint noises, or crepitus.

  1. The first cause could be due to air bubbles forming in the joint spaces, particularly in areas where there is fluid separating bones- like the knee, ankle, shoulder, hip, and elbow.

  2. The second cause for non-painful joint noises could be from tendons, ligaments, and/or bones rubbing together, stretching, or releasing as you move. NO this is not a sign of “wear and tear” or an indication that you should stop moving in whatever way caused the noise. Again, if occurring without pain, noisy joints are totally normal and not a reason for alarm.

Popping sounds in the joints also tend to be more common in people who are hypermobile, meaning they can reach greater range of motion (ROM) than the average person, (think gymnasts). Why? This is due to the increased ROM these people possess, which allows more space in air cavities for bubbles to form and for structures within the joint to rub against each other. Again, noises are not a cause for concern in this instance.

Is it bad to pop your knuckles?

When it comes to noisy joints, people commonly wonder if cracking your knuckles is bad for your fingers and hands. It seems as if every parent and grandparent has told their kids, “stop cracking your knuckles or you will get arthritis!” Is there any truth to this?

One study looked at 215 people aged 50-89 and found that “a history of habitual knuckle cracking—including the total duration and total cumulative exposure—does not seem to be a risk factor for hand osteoarthritis” (DeWeber 2011).

Another researcher, Dr. Unger, was so dedicated to figure out the relationship between arthritis and knuckle cracking that he cracked the knuckles on one hand and not the other for 50 years. During this time, he took frequent x-rays and found he had no greater incidence or risk for arthritis in one hand vs. the other. Thus, it seems that, similar to pain-free popping noises in the joints, popping your knuckles is entirely harmless.

Is there a way to stop my joints from popping?

Even though non-painful popping or clicking is harmless, many people find the noises to be irritating. One of the best things our therapists at Made2Move Charleston recommend for minimizing the noises in the joints is to MOVE. The phrase “motion is lotion” holds true here, as movement helps to lubricate the joints. Ever noticed how your joints are often more noisy in the morning? This is likely due to the body naturally experiencing less movement during the hours you were asleep. Besides general movement, some other ways to minimize the noises would be:

  • Dynamic warmups

  • Working through full ranges of motion

  • Resistance training

  • Mobility work

When should I be concerned about my noisy joints?

There are a few instances where noisy joints may be a cause for concern. If the clicking or popping is causing pain, happens with every single rep, or is minimizing mobility then it may be wise to see a physical therapist at one of our four Made2Move clinics.

Here at Made2Move Charleston, we perform thorough evaluations to assess what the cause for concern may be. Whether it is a simultaneous pinch and pop in your shoulder or a limited range of motion through your squat coupled with a painful pop in the knee, our therapists are dedicated to getting to the root of your injury and resolving it. If you are experiencing pain accompanied with joint noises, an initial assessment by one of our P.T.s at Made2Move could be beneficial. Reach out to today to set up an initial evaluation.


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