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Got Noisy Joints? What You Need to Know About Joint Cracks and Pops

Kevin Campion, PT, MPT

“My shoulder makes a noise when I move. Is that bad?” Substitute shoulder for knee, neck, or ankle, and some version of the “noisy joints” question is heard nearly every day in our physical therapy clinics. 

Most of us know that joints can make noises: cracks, pops, snaps, clicks, and more. These sounds can be loud and unsettling. Noisy joints are often a concern for people who fear that the joint noises are a sign of an underlying issue.  

First, the good news is that when no pain or swelling accompanies the sound, noisy joints are normal and usually not an indication of a problem. In the article below, one of our talented and experienced physical therapists, Kevin Campion, PT, MPT, discusses the common concerns surrounding joint noises that his patients often experience and why the pops and clicks of noisy joints happen.

Why Do Joints Pop or Click?

When we move our bodies, structures like ligaments, tendons, and cartilage pull and glide against each other. The action of muscles and tendons rubbing against the bone can cause a snapping noise. This sound may increase if the muscles are tight and need stretching. Some of the joint noises we hear are related to the rubbing—stretch out, and they’ll often subside. 

Joints also contain bubbles of gasses such as nitrogen and a thick liquid called synovial fluid. When the bubbles of gas or synovial fluid compress, it can produce a popping sound. This sound is most recognizable when a person cracks their knuckles and other joints. It’s simply a release of air. While some of these joint noises and sounds may be loud or frequent, they are a natural part of bodily movement. 

“A related misconception that you may have heard is that knuckle cracking will cause arthritis, and there is no evidence that it does,” Campion adds.

Additionally, Campion notes that joint noises may become more frequent or noticeable with age. “Over time, cartilage surfaces get rougher and make more noise than younger smoother cartilage,” he said. As we get older, we may hear those noisy joints cracking and popping more and more. It’s just part of natural aging and not a sign of a joint issue.

Can Anything be Done About Noisy Joints?

People of all ages and activity levels experience noisy joints. It can be a little embarrassing to start creaking and popping during a yoga class or while riding a bike, but generally, it’s nothing to be  concerned about. The benefit of getting exercise? We may actually reduce some of the noises by becoming more active. 

“Motion helps the natural joint fluid lubricate and nourish the joint surfaces and structures in a similar way oil helps mechanical parts move better,” Campion said. So, keep moving, despite noisy joints.

A specific repeated snapping in a certain area might benefit from stretching, or some targeted exercises too. Experts recommend setting a goal of 30 minutes of movement per day. Not only does this amount of exercise benefit our joints, but it can benefit our overall health too.

When is Joint Noise a Concern?

Although most noisy joints don’t indicate a larger problem, it’s always essential that you listen to your body. If the joint simply pops and creaks without pain, then there’s nothing to worry about. If you experience pain, stiffness, or a locking sensation, it’s time to make sure it’s not a more serious problem.

If there is pain accompanying your noisy joints, we recommend visiting one of our physical therapists or physicians for an evaluation. Swelling, loss of motion, or changing how you move are signs you need to see someone. Don’t ignore the discomfort. You should always be able to move without pain.

If you’re experiencing any joint concerns, we have seven physical therapy clinic locations throughout the Southeastern Wisconsin region. At each of our sites, we can provide you with a free pain assessment from one of our talented therapists. They’ll help you figure out the cause of your discomfort so that you can move again with ease. Make an appointment today to take the first step in becoming pain-free. 

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