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If your joints pop, it can mean there are nitrogen bubbles popping or your ligaments are rubbing together, says Tracy Ng, DO, of Englewood Community Hospital. Watch this video to learn if it's harmful to your health.
A “popping” sound in your joints can be caused by several different things. Most of the time it’s caused by a gas bubble that forms on the surface of the flexible tissue surrounding a joint, called cartilage, when you stretch. When this bubble pops or fills rapidly with the surrounding joint fluid, a crack or pop is heard. A popping sound also could be the result of a tendon stretching and snapping over a bony bump around a joint. Or, it could be due to severe arthritis in which bone is rubbing on bone, causing a grinding feeling and, sometimes, an audible pop.
There's no doubt about it: joints can be noisy.
As a general rule, if there is no pain and the joint is working well, there is little reason for concern.
Many people regularly crack their knuckles. Others can make their wrists or knees click on demand. The source of these sounds is often uncertain.
In the case of cracking knuckles, gas bubbles in the joint burst when the joint space is expanded a bit, such as by stretching a finger back.
In other cases, the noises seem to come from a tendon rubbing over a bony bump. These are generally considered harmless. There's good evidence that cracking knuckles does not cause arthritis or other joint problems. (This is true as long as the action used to crack the knuckle is not extreme. It's rare, but joint dislocations have been reported.)
There are times when noises coming from joints are a concern. A popping or cracking sound during an injury may mean a torn ligament or fractured bone. A clunking or grinding noise coming from the joint of a person with significant arthritis may be a sign of severe joint damage. But these cases usually come with severe pain, instability or not being able to use the joint.
While we don't always know where the noises come from, it seems clear that if there are no other symptoms, most joint noises can safely be ignored.
If there's no pain or swelling when your joints click, snap or pop, the noises are not usually a sign of trouble. You may hear a tendon moving across a joint. Or you may have momentarily (and harmlessly) broken the seal of synovial fluid that fills the joint capsule. The sound could also be the release of nitrogen gas from a joint moved slightly out of position (like a cracking knuckle). It's a different story, however, if the noise occurs at the moment of injury, or if pain or swelling accompanies it; in that case, there may be joint damage that needs medical attention. In addition, a grating sound, called crepitus, may be a sign of arthritis.
The popping sound we hear in our joints is caused when a bone is popped out of its socket. Learn more on this topic in this video.
This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.