Whether intentionally or unintentionally, most of us have cracked a joint before. And if you cracked your joints a lot as a kid, a parent probably told you it was going to destroy all your bones. But let’s hold up for a minute; is cracking your bones or joints actually all that bad for you?
What Causes Your Joints to Crack?
It turns out “crackly bubble wrap bones” has real name–crepitus. Like all sciency words, it’s derived from Latin.
Painless cracking in your bones, something you’ve likely experienced, is caused by popping synovial fluid. That sounds really bad, but give us a second. In between your bones and joints, there is fluid–the synovial fluid we just name-dropped. Basically, it’s kind of like bone lube. It keeps your bones and cartilage (softer stuff between bones) from wearing down as much over time. So; when you put an arbitrary amount of force on your joints, you can create little nitrogen bubbles in your joints. When it pops, you get the cracking noise.
Oh, and your knuckles and neck tend to pop easier simply because you have to exert less force to create the bubbles. That’s really it.
Other causes include rapid stretching of the ligaments or pressure changes. The pressure changes, like the bubbles, work the same way. Sometimes bubbles just form on their own–which is why your bones can crack after you sit for a while. There’s also the breaking of adhesions with your joints–but those are normally associated with scarring on the inside or surgery.
You can also get crepitus when your bones actually rub together because the cartilage between them is worn away. That can cause pain and potentially other bad news for you.
Is Cracking Your Bones Bad?
Let’s be real, you’re probably here because your mom told you one time that cracking your knuckles would give you arthritis. So is cracking your bones actually bad? Can cracking them cause arthritis?
Luckily for you, cracking your knuckles before your big speech or starting your next research paper will not give you arthritis. Generally. If it causes pain that’s another issue. That would suggest you might have a separate health problem.
But anyway, you’re not giving yourself arthritis by cracking your bones. The cracking of joints that comes from arthritis is better considered a symptom than it is a cause. But yes, cracking bones can be a sign of arthritis, since your bones are grinding away and wearing at each other. Which, if you’ve ever rubbed your nails on a chalkboard, doesn’t sound like a great time.
If you really want to feel safe, look no further than Ig Nobel Prize winner Donald Unger. Quick recap, the Ig Nobel Prize is like the Nobel Prize but for dumb things, like calculating the exact coefficient of friction of a banana peel.
Back to Unger, he went 60 years cracking the knuckles on only one hand to prove that cracking his knuckles would not give him arthritis. He did not get arthritis. Yay, science!
Excessively paranoid about arthritis? We’re no sure if this will help much, but here’s a quiz about it.