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MYTH BUSTER: Is knuckle cracking bad for you?

The fascination with knuckle cracking often starts at an early age. Kids think it’s cool to hear that popping and crackling sound that emanates from their joints when they bend and twist them. Some get hooked and form a habit of cracking knuckles on a frequent basis. Sometimes this fascination leads to neck cracking and back cracking. Many adults cringe at the sound, adamantly proclaiming this will lead to arthritis or other joint problems later in life.

Michael Behr, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at Piedmont, says this just isn’t so.

“There are no definitive links between knuckle cracking and arthritis or any other medical condition. Some studies imply knuckle cracking may lead to some hand swelling and weakness later in life, but again, there are no studies that prove this direct connection.” 

Why do knuckles pop?

There are two theories that explain the popping noise, says Dr. Behr:

  • All joints are bathed in fluid. When a joint is “cracked,” nitrogen bubbles are released creating a popping sound.

  • The movement of ligaments around the joint can also cause a popping sound.

Does knuckle popping really bring relief?

Some people claim popping their knuckles or their back brings them relief. Dr. Behr says this might be true if in fact the release of nitrogen takes stress off the joints, but then again, relief could also be a result of the stretching that is simultaneously taking place.

Dr. Behr believes there is an important message that people who crack their joints should know.

“If you have any pain associated with cracking your knuckles, back or neck, then it is time to see a doctor. Pain is not normally associated with this activity and needs to be investigated,” he says.

FUN FACT - Once you crack your knuckles, it takes about 25 to 30 minutes for the gases to re-dissolve into the joint fluid. During this time, your knuckles will not crack.

BOTTOM LINE - Knuckle popping does not cause arthritis.

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