The Pop! Pop! Pop! of every broken knuckle is so satisfying to you. But it’s slowly driving everyone around you completely crazy. You can’t remember when you started doing it, but you just can’t stop yourself. And why? “There’s no scientific explanation for why it’s so addictive, but it’s thought to be one of those activities that releases nervous energy.
Many of us are familiar with the cracking sound and sensation that occurs when we crack our knuckles, whether for relief or as a nervous habit. Although this habit can be a satisfying experience, cracking your knuckles too often can cause problems for your hand health.
It is estimated that 25-54% of people crack their knuckles every day, and most of them are male. For some, it feels good and comes naturally to stretch, crack and pop the knuckles, back, neck and other parts of the body after waking up. “Don’t do that, you’ll get arthritis,” you may have heard. It sounds like an old wives’ tale, but is it really true? Does cracking your knuckles (or other parts of your body) actually cause long-term harm? I’m a chronic knuckle cracker – how can I stop?
What causes the cracking sound in your knuckle joints?
First of all, it’s important to understand what causes the cracking sounds when joints crack – a mystery that is still not 100% solved, but there are a few leading theories. The first involves bubbles in the synovial fluid. Synovial fluid is a viscous fluid found in synovial joints, which are the most mobile joints such as shoulders, knees, wrists, etc. When a joint is pulled, the gas present in the joint is released and gas bubbles form in the synovial fluid. The presence of the bubbles and the sudden change in pressure causes them to burst, which in turn causes the cracking sound you hear when you crack your knuckles.
Another, more likely theory involves what is known as cavitation. This is the formation of cavities inside a joint when it is pulled, bent, twisted or otherwise manipulated. These cavities form in the joint fluid and then quickly collapse, creating the sharp, audible cracking sound.
Side effects of knuckle cracking.
Contrary to popular belief, knuckle cracking does not actually contribute to the development of arthritis. However, there is a chance that you may injure your hands if you do it improperly or with too much force.
Dislocating the fingers
The finger joints are the knuckles where the fingers meet the rest of the hand. Although these joints are very stable, they can still dislocate if enough external pressure is applied. This usually affects the index and little fingers.
Ligaments are tissues that connect your bones at the site of a joint. A sprain occurs when the supporting ligaments are overstretched or torn as a result of twisting, a blow or other trauma. If your finger is sprained, you may feel a cracking or tearing sensation.
Does cracking knuckles cause arthritis?
Cracking your knuckles may annoy those around you, but it probably doesn’t increase your risk for arthritis. That’s the finding of several studies that compared the incidence of arthritis in the hand in crackers and non-crackers.
The “pop” of a cracked knuckle is caused by the bursting of bubbles in the synovial fluid – the fluid that helps lubricate joints. The bubbles burst when the bones are pulled apart by stretching the fingers or bending them backward, creating negative pressure. The authors of one study compared the sudden, vibrating energy created when the knuckles crack to the forces responsible for destroying hydraulic blades and ship propellers.”
Even if knuckle cracking doesn’t cause arthritis, there are good reasons to break the habit. Chronic knuckle cracking can lead to decreased grip strength. In addition, there are at least two published reports of injuries people have sustained while cracking their knuckles.
How to stop cracking your knuckles
Even if cracking your knuckles doesn’t give you arthritis, it can still have other negative effects. It can cause joint swelling, negatively affect hand strength, or be a side effect of anxiety. Most importantly, it probably annoys those around you. So if you’re looking at it from a behavioral perspective, you can still try to stop cracking your joints – here’s how.
Understand why you crack with your joints. Is the main cause some kind of anxiety or stress relief? Under what conditions do you feel compelled to crack your knuckles? Knowing where the compulsion is coming from is the first step to solving the problem.
Stretching. Stretching your hands and forearms can catch some of the relief that knuckle cracking (or other joints) brings.
Keep your hands busy. A craft hobby is a great way to keep your hands busy. If you sit at a desk all day, it’s a good way to get into the habit of doing something else (like twisting a pen or squeezing a stress ball).
While knuckle cracking is usually relatively harmless, other things can cause a snapping or popping sound, such as tendons snapping over joints. For example, if you feel or hear your shoulder repeatedly cracking when you lift weights, it could be an indication that the muscles are tight and need additional stretching before exercising. If the cracking becomes painful and radiates to other parts of your body, you should stop strenuous activity immediately, take a warm shower to loosen the muscles, and see a chiropractor.
Painful cracking in the joints may indicate a muscle tear or other injury. Your chiropractor can help you heal them so you can get back on your feet.
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