We’ve all experienced that satisfying ‘crack’ in our joints at one point or another. It is quite common for our knees, knuckles, back and neck to sound off with a ‘crack’ or ‘pop’ as we bend and flex the various parts of our bodies.
Specifically, these sounds are medically known as ‘crepitus’ and usually increase in frequency as we get older. The good news though, is that the sounds themselves are not a cause for concern.
Why do they happen?
Crepitus is actually the sound of trapped gases being released from the fluids between our joints as we move around. Nitrogen bubbles in the synovial fluid between our joints build up over time and are released when a joint is used in a certain way, such as reaching up, or bending for a stretch.
Why does a ‘cracked’ joint feel so good?
Chemicals called endorphins are released in the area where our joints ‘crack’. These endorphins ease any pain we experience in our bodies, and seemingly feel as though tension dissipates as our joints are released. With the endorphins come a sense of pleasure whenever joints, such as our neck, back or even knuckles ‘crack’.
When are these popping joints a cause for concern?
The popping noises by themselves aren’t a cause for concern. But should the following be noticed when we relieve the tension in our joints, it could be a sign that something isn’t right.
Here are some symptoms to watch out for:
- Dull aching around the joint
Conditions associated with popping joints
There may be occasions when crepitus isn’t as simple or pleasurable as relieving trapped air in your joints, especially when we may be experiencing the following conditions:
Arthritis is the condition where our joints become swollen and stiff; and with movement, become painful. As we get older, the swelling, stiffness and resultant pain tends to get worsen if left untreated.
The most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Osteoarthritis is characterised by the breakdown of the hard tissue (cartilage) between your joints.
- Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the lining of your joints are attacked by your own immune system.
The sound you hear in your joints could actually be due to the movement of damaged cartilage and bone.
The meniscus is the piece of cartilage that absorbs pressure between the bones in our knees. This cushioning prevents our bones from grinding against each other.
Unfortunately, this soft cartilage can tear when performing strenuous activities like sports like soccer or basketball. The torn meniscus piece can become stuck in between our joints and impede movement. This can cause a popping noise in the knee, along with pain and swelling.
Patellofemoral pain syndrome
This condition, also known as 'runners knee', refers to a dull pain around our kneecaps. This pain tends to increase with repeated strenuous exercises such as running or stair climbing. The pain can be accompanied by a grating noise in the knee.
Diagnosis and treatment
While a physical examination of a swollen and painful joint may be enough for an orthopaedic specialist to diagnose the nature of the condition or injury, additional imaging tests may be ordered. These include X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
The treatment of the underlying condition may be non-surgical or surgical.
Non-surgical treatment includes activity modification, analgesics for pain relief, physiotherapy and home exercises. Surgical treatment usually involves arthroscopy - a minimally invasive keyhole procedure.
What happens during an arthroscopy?
In an arthroscopy, the surgeon will create a small incision in your skin near your joint and insert a thin tube with a tiny video camera attached to the end. They will then be able to see the inside of your joint by displaying what the camera records on a live video monitor.
Once your surgeon can get a good view of your joint, they may then start to treat your condition using very thin surgical tools that may be inserted through other small incisions around the joint.
The procedure is generally preferred over open surgery as there will be a smaller incision made into the skin which means a faster healing time and shorter hospital stay.
When to see a doctor
While the occasional ‘pop’ or ‘crack’ in your joints in no cause for concern, consult an orthopaedic specialist when in doubt, or if any pain, swelling or discomfort is experienced.
Article reviewed by Dr Lingaraj Krishna, orthopaedic specialist at Gleneagles Hospital
When to Worry About Noisy Joints. Retrieved on 14 January 2021 from http://www.rehaborthopedicmedicine.com/noisy-joints.php
What Happens When You Crack Your Back?. Retrieved on 14 January 2021 from https://www.healthline.com/health/back-cracking
Arthritis. Retrieved on 14 January 2021 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350772
Torn meniscus. Retrieved on 14 January 2021 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/torn-meniscus/symptoms-causes/syc-20354818
Patellofemoral pain syndrome. Retrieved on 14 January 2021 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/patellofemoral-pain-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20350792
Arthroscopy. Retrieved on 14 January 2021 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/arthroscopy/about/pac-20392974