You’ve probably seen in a movie or cartoon a scene where a pianist preparing to play a masterpiece methodically laces together the fingers of his two hands, then turns his hands outward from him and applies pressure to pop his knuckles. Have you ever found yourself wondering this habit of popping one’s knuckles pushes a person down the path toward arthritis and related joint problems? Obviously there are lots of wives’ tales in existence about the effects of popping your knuckles. The most common effects attributed to long-term habitual knuckle-popping are enlarged knuckles and eventual arthritis. Does knuckle-cracking cause either of those problems? Here’s what we know.
What Causes a Knuckle Crack
Knuckles are made up of hinge joints on your fingers. When you crack your knuckles, a phenomenon called cavitation is believed to occur within your finger joints. Essentially, what happens is this: the volume occupied by the connective capsules increases creating bubbles in the synovial fluid (the lubricant for the joints) that ultimately burst and cause the popping sound. Sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?
Knuckle Cracking Studies
While most experts haven’t said that cracking your knuckles has been proven to have negative effects, even when done routinely over a long period of time, they are careful to point out that they aren’t certain that it doesn’t cause problems. Some researchers have gone as far as to suggest that even if knuckle cracking doesn’t cause arthritis, the practice is likely to produce other negative results. Also, there is a lot of agreement that cracking your knuckles doesn’t help you in any way, so the safest route is to avoid cracking your knuckles. Studies about the effects of cracking knuckles are limited and generally inconclusive. Dr. Ian York of Michigan State University gives a comprehensive review of what’s generally known about knuckle cracking. His report includes some of the few studies that have been done.
I have a habit of cracking my knuckles, and here is my take on it. My knuckle cracking habit originated from injuries (broken and dislocated fingers) sustained while playing sports, including wrestling, football, and basketball. I find that cracking knuckles gives temporary relief from the pain and stiffness that exists in joints that have been impacted by injury. The habit grew to include popping my wrist joints. My knees and ankles pop on their own at times when I walk, similar to most people who’ve been involved in sports and who are in their twenties or later. I’ve been to chiropractors for back, neck, and rib injuries sustained in sports. Most of the chiropractors I’ve used provided temporary relief (none have been successful at providing long-term or sustained results) by cracking my neck or back. My experience with the methods used by chiropractors is very similar to what I’ve noticed when I crack my knuckles. The bottom line is this: cracking joints apparently provides a temporary feeling of relief from stiffness or pain. For many people, the natural temporary pain relief associated with cracking knuckles is worth the tradeoff for whatever potential long term damage might loom as a result.
Another trend I’ve noticed with cracking knuckles is that the more you do it, the easier it seems to be to do it again. When I first began cracking my knuckles, it took some effort. Now it is second nature.
Put simply, you’d be better off if you follow Aunt Martha’s advice not to crack your knuckles. Despite the lack of any clear match between knuckle cracking and any particular ailment, many signs point to the potential for damage due to intentional joint popping. For those who need relief from stiffness, stretching out those tendons and ligaments on a regular basis is a better alternative.