In spite of what you’ve probably heard, that is not the case, and it’s actually like yoga for your knuckles.
When people learn that I am an orthopedic surgeon specializing in upper extremities, the most common question I’m asked is, Does cracking knuckles cause arthritis or is it bad for you? I get this from my patients, friends, and family.
I tell them all the same thing: It is an old wives’ tale, and cracking your knuckles is not causing harm for most people. The misinformation may have started by a person who did not like the popping noise, or by someone who felt pain when cracking the knuckles.
But with time we have learned that cracking knuckles has not been shown to be harmful. Specifically, cracking your knuckles has not been linked to arthritis.
A study completed at the University of California, Davis on the effects of cracking your knuckles was presented at the 2015 annual meeting for the Radiological Society of North America. It found that knuckle crackers did not show any hand problems from the practice.
The study involved 40 people who were examined with ultrasound imaging as they attempted to crack the base knuckle of each finger. The study included 30 participants who had a history of habitually cracking their knuckles and 10 participants who did not crack their knuckles.
This study not only looked at the increased chance for arthritis but also looked at the difference in strength of grip. It found no link between that and knuckle cracking. The takeaway from the study was that popping your joints does not lead to arthritis, swelling or lower grip strength. But, it was found that people who crack their knuckles saw an increased range of motion over those who did not crack their knuckles.
A similar study was done in Canada in 2015 showing similar findings. It was published in the Public Library of Science, disproving the previous idea that cracking your knuckle will cause harm in the long run.
Five fun facts on knuckle cracking
- Joint cracking creates relief for some people; for others it’s merely a habitual act
- Between 25-54 percent of people crack their knuckles
- Men are more likely to crack their knuckles than women
- After cracking the knuckle, it usually takes 15-30 minutes to be able to crack it again
- A grinding sound, call crepitus, will be made from movement in a joint with worn cartilage.
What happens to your body while cracking knuckles?
Cracking knuckles can be done in three ways: Pulling on the bones around the joint, bending them backward or forward, and turning them sideways. All of these methods cause the same reaction in the joint.
The cracking noise comes from nitrogen gas being pulled into the joint by the negative pressure created by the cracking. This is not harmful to the body. The cracking sound can also come from tendons snapping over tissues because of minor adjustments in their gliding paths.
This cause for the cracking noise tends to occur as a person ages and their muscle mass changes. If you have arthritis, tendonitis or bursitis, the cracking sound is most likely due to snapping of irregular or swollen tissues.
It is recommended that if you feel pain or have swollen tissues in the hand, then don’t crack your knuckles. If cracking knuckles is accompanied by pain, there could be an irregularity to the structure of the hand. This could include underlying abnormalities such as loose cartilage or injured ligaments.
On the plus side, right after popping a joint there is evidence of increased mobility. When you pop a joint, it stimulates the Golgi tendon organs, which are sensors that detect change in muscle tension. The Golgi tendon organ then relaxes the muscles surrounding the joint.
This is the same reason that a person will feel loose and restored after leaving the chiropractor’s office. It is kind of like yoga for your knuckles.
Next time someone tries to stop you from cracking your knuckles, share this article. One person at a time, we can change the stigma against cracking your knuckles around.