Popping the joints, bone-crunching, or knuckle-cracking (however you want to call it), is a very common practice, mostly because we use it to relieve tension. However, various studies have indicated that it is harmful to crack your knuckles. This article will explain the reasons why such a conclusion has been drawn as well as what is going on when you hear that unique sound.
Why do your knuckles “crack”?
That noise we hear when we crack our knuckles, wrists, ankles or any other part of the body comes from the bursting of bubbles that are in the liquid lining in our joints. It is good to remember that our joints are the point of contact where our bones come together, and that they are covered by a thick “synovial” liquid. When a finger joint, for example, is popped, stretched or bent, the joint separates.
The capsule surrounding the joint is stretched out and enlarges, which lowers its pressure. When this happens, the dissolved gases in the synovial fluid form bubbles. Then they ‘explode’, producing that distinctive snapping sound.
The gas needs half an hour to dissolve into the liquid, which means that after popping a joint and hearing that ‘crack’, it is advisable to not try it again for another 30 minutes. With regard to the risks of this common habit, it is worth pointing out that there are not a lot of scientific studies. Attempts have been made to analyze various people who frequently crack their knuckles to find out whether damage has resulted in their joints such as arthritis or osteoarthritis.
What was discovered during this study was that the fingers showed signs of damage, such as soft tissue injuries and a reduced ability to grab an object. This appears to be related to the quick and repetitive stretching and contracting of the joint ligaments.
The truth of the matter is that after cracking your knuckles there is a greater degree of mobility and a sense of relaxation in the joints. For this reason it develops into a daily habit for many people. On the other hand there are others who often visit a specialist called a chiropractor, whose aim is to “rearrange” the bones, or “put them in order” to relieve tension. Those who receive such a treatment indicate that they feel looser and more relaxed, with less soreness and fewer muscle contractions.
Cracking your knuckles causes muscle wasting
Some researchers claim that this is the primary consequence of popping your joints, particularly of cracking your finger muscles. But take note that this problem is often suffered by people who are not very physically active, since it is the only time during the day when the muscles and joints are stretched. Lack of movement results in poor muscle strength, so it feels like they are worn out or tired. And a vicious circle is started, where a person turns to cracking their knuckles to get that relaxed feeling for a few hours, only needing to do it again just a little while later.
We frequently want to relieve pain or contractions with this movement, but we should also bear in mind that for our joints it is somewhat abrupt, insensitive and unnatural. And contrary to popular opinion, it does not release muscle tension, but rather only results in the loss of more synovial fluid, the natural lubricant that prevents friction between bones. This can lead not only to a breakdown of the joints, but also to a greater possibility of suffering fractured or broken bones. Other results are stiffness, deformation of the injured area, and sharp pain that goes away with rest.
Those who suffer most from this problem are adults over 40 years old. And the areas where popping of the joints results in the most breakdown is in the hands (fingers and wrists) and in the neck. The best way to avoid this problem is to exercise, taking into account our age and your physical condition. Walking and swimming are the most recommended forms of exercise.
Other highly recommended activities are those that promote muscle strength and flexibility because they result in increased endurance to all tasks without damaging or straining the joints. After passing 30 years of age, joint tissues begin to lose elasticity, so it is even more important to prevent or eliminate bad habits such as physical inactivity and poor posture in front of the computer or TV.
Does cracking your knuckles cause arthritis?
Many people ask if cracking their knuckles or popping their joints can result in developing arthritis. Although this was mentioned earlier in the article, the truth is that, if it is a regular, daily habit over the course of many years, in theory, the cartilage is damaged.
One of the best known studies on this topic was made by Dr. Donald Unger, who for more than 60 years cracked the knuckles of the fingers on his left hand twice a day but did not do so on his right hand. Every year he examined his hands and never found traces of a degenerative disease, even in the hand that he “crunched”.
Another study examined 30 elderly people in a nursing home in Los Angeles. Those who had cracked their knuckles their whole life did not have osteoarthritis. In a third study, this time with adults 45 years old in Detroit, it was discovered that the main problem was in the loss of strength in their grip, and that also over 80% of those studied suffered from swelling in their hands.
For this reason, it is advisable to not constantly crack your knuckles. Although doing so from time to time to release tension doesn’t appear to be a bad thing.
We hope we’ve answered the often-asked question: “Is cracking your knuckles harmful?” Thanks for reading!