Does Cracking Your Knuckles Cause Arthritis?

Dr. Ben Coupe
Wellness

February 12, 2015




If you haven’t said it you may have at least thought it. It seems this especially comes to mind for patients when we are going through the feet part of the adjustment. We are adjusting your toes as we regularly do and often you will feel and/or hear cracking. Every now and then someone will ask the question “does cracking cause arthritis?” My simple answer is usually no but I decided to take the time to answer this question more formally.

First of all it seems the idea comes from the old wives tale that cracking your knuckles will lead to arthritis. Some people are so perturbed by the concept or sound of cracking knuckles that the correlation may well have developed from just trying to get people to stop!

So what is the crack sound? Most people are of the belief that it must be bones clicking together but that is not true.

Your joints, including those in your knuckles, are surrounded by a membrane called the synovial membrane, which forms a capsule around the ends of your bones. Inside this membrane is synovial fluid, which acts as a lubricant and shock absorber so your bones don’t grind together when you move.

When you “crack” your knuckles, or any other joint, it expands the space between your bones, creating negative pressure that draws synovial fluid into the new gap. This influx of synovial fluid (and the resultant release of gas created) is what causes the popping sound and feeling when you crack a knuckle.

So can it cause arthritis? Studies consistently conclude no correlation between cracking and arthritis. For instance, one study of 200 people in 2011 did not find any increased prevalence of osteoarthritis in the knuckle cracking group compared to the non crackers.1

So why do some people get so addicted to it? When you crack your knuckles, the joints become looser and have more mobility for a short period afterward. This perceived positive feeling may be why some people become habitual knuckle crackers. There are many that will get the same feeling in other parts of the body as well. Necks and low backs appear to be the most common. Those that suffer from tension and tightness in these regions often find that twisting in a certain direction will get the joints to crack and give a temporary release. ‘Temporary’ if the operative word here. Those who are familiar with this often find the need to want to do it more and more over time.

So is cracking joints a good or bad thing?

The answer lies in the founding principle of Advanced BioStructural Correction™. That there are directions that bones misalign in that we can self-correct and directions that bones misalign in that we cannot, based on whether or not there is a muscle that pulls in the direction necessary to do so. When a misalignment occurs in a direction we cannot self-correct, our body needs to find some compensatory twist to manage the imbalance. That in turns creates tight and tense muscles and joints that some will feel the need to ‘crack’ to give some release. The key is that unless you correct the cause of the tension (the misalignment your body cannot self-correct) you will need to continually crack these areas just to get a short term relief. This includes your knuckles by the way. I have continually witnessed chronic knuckle crackers stop cracking their knuckles because their body was adjusted and better balance restored. In my experience this seems especially related to the neck.

Some believe that constantly cracking joints may in turn lead to joint laxity that may create other problems down the track but there is little evidence to support this. I think the key lies in dealing with the reason why we need to do this in the first place. As always, deal with the cause of the problem first (posture and structural conditions) and you’ll find the resultant secondary problems (symptoms) will solve themselves.

  1. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine March-April 2011: 24(2); 169-174

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