Wikimedia Commons

If you have noticed your knees, shoulders, wrists, or other body parts have been “popping,” you might wonder what it could mean. Is this behavior normal for our health? Known as crepitus, the audible snaps, crackles, or pops occur whenever your joints move a certain way. It might sound like a serious medical issue, but crepitus isn’t as bad as it sounds.

It’s perfectly normal

Everyone experiences crepitus, as everyone moves their joints throughout the day. With this in mind, it’s perfectly normal to experience crepitus, as long as it doesn’t cause any serious injuries. But what causes it? The habit happens when joints or ligaments rub together whenever you move or compress them, resulting in a mild creaking sound or sensation. Some people experience the habit more frequently [depending on their physical health] while others tend to go about their daily routine without noticing the sensation.

Still a new concept

Medical professionals still don’t understand everything about crepitus, except that they know the habit occurs whenever you move your body in a certain way. The sensation can often surprise you. For example, you might bend down and hear your knees “pop” or crack. You weren’t planning on popping your knee, but it happened anyway.

“Crepitus can just mean that the tissue is snapping when it rubs over something, like a ligament snapping over the edge of a joint,” said orthopedic director Timothy Gibson, M.D. Your tissues and ligaments snap and rub together naturally, whether we want them to “pop” or not.

What about popping our knuckles?

But what about when we force certain parts of our body to crack? For example, between 25 and 54 percent of people purposely crack their knuckles. They force their knuckles to “pop” because they enjoy the sensation—becoming a type of nervous habit or gesture. But with this habit, it’s about gas, not your joints rubbing together.

A liquid [synovial fluid] lives inside your joints, which helps your joint cartilage, the substance that shields the edges of your bones, glide more easily. Whenever you push, pull or add force to your joints, this pressure forms bubbles of gas inside the synovial fluid, like carbon dioxide or nitrogen, which pop and release a loud sound. But contrary to popular belief, cracking your knuckles isn’t harmful to your knuckles.

Sports medicine and orthopedics specialist John-Paul H. Rue, M.D., remarks, “Either way, cracking, popping, or snapping itself [your knuckles] does not appear to be either harmful to the joint or a marker of any specific disease or condition.” Cracking your knuckles voluntarily does not cause arthritis, but there comes a time when you need to become concerned.

When it becomes a problem

You can ignore crepitus if it doesn’t hurt when your joints “pop.” However, if you experience pain during the sensation, including swelling associated with the creaking or grinding of your joints, you need to be alarmed. If you feel like your joints are locked in a certain position, you need to meet with a medical doctor.

In the very rare cases, crepitus can be a sign of osteoarthritis, a form of arthritis occurring when the protective joint cartilage is wearing down. It could also be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that happens when your immune system damages the lining of your joints. This often leads to bone and joint erosion. For both cases of arthritis, crepitus is a symptom that your joints need medical attention.

You might not be forcing the joints to “pop,” like when you crack your knuckles, but they creak on their own. If this happens more frequently, pay attention to the signs. Your body is trying to tell you something is wrong. Listen to it!

How to heal the pain

Unfortunately, there’s no treatment for crepitus. However, if your personal case is especially painful, there are over-the-counter pain-relievers available, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which help heal the symptoms. In addition, doctors recommend trying the R.I.C.E. method: Rest, Icing the affected area for 20-minute periods, Compressing the area, and Elevating it. If the pain doesn’t subside, speak to your doctor and he/she will offer additional advice on how to help reduce the inflammation.