Is Cracking Your Joints Bad For Your Health?

02/14/2012

Cracking joints photoI’ll be the first to admit that this is a habit I’ve been fighting since I was a teenager. I have countless memories of riding in the car with my mom only to be chastised for cracking my knuckles. 

It’s not as gross as some habits but it’s not appealing either. But more than the outward yuck factor of popping knuckles, is the fear of damage to the joints. So on to answering the age old question: Is Cracking Your Joints Bad For Your Health?

First off, what is really happening when that POP POP POP occurs? Cracking your knuckles is actually the release of negative pressure on the joints. It happens when synovial fluid which protects the joints is pulled apart, according to  Dr. Jonathan Kay, clinical director of the rheumatology unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. When the thick gel is pulled apart through pressure, the seal of the synovial fluid is broken and that’s what makes that popping sound. It takes about 20 minutes for the seal to be reestablished and that’s why your knuckles will only pop every so often.

While cracking your knuckles has not been shown to cause arthritis, it can do damage to the knuckles by stretching out the ligaments, according to one study that followed 300 knuckle crackers in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics.

And then there’s the question as to why we tend to feel a release after cracking our knuckles or going to the chiropractor. This results because the Golgi Tendon Organs, a set of nerve endings, are stimulated when the knuckles are cracked. This relaxes the muscles surrounding the joint. 

Cracking joints inline photo

Photo: Thinkstock

However, some chiropractors have warned against cracking your neck. Usually constant cracking in the neck means that you’re hyper-mobile in your joints or there’s too much room and your joints could go out of alignment. Because of that hyper-mobility, the muscles around the joints in the neck can tighten to hold it in place. This can cause tightness in the neck.

So while cracking your joints won't cause arthritis it's not a habit I'd start if I wasn't fighting it already.

Photo: Thomas northcut/Thinkstock

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More on Cracking Joints
What makes your knuckles pop?
5 Old Wives' Tales about Your Health
 


Sara Novak writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on SereneKitchen.com. She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.


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