Does your shoulder click when you raise your arm overhead? Do your knees crack when you go up and down stairs? Do your hips pop when you squat? Is this normal? My body sounds like Rice Krispies...snap, crackle, pop…. Is that okay?
These sounds could be due to a number of things such as muscle tendons moving over each other or moving over bones, air building up in our joint spaces, or crepitus (grinding and clicking). In many cases, the noises that our bodies make end up being more of an annoyance than being problematic, especially if there are no other symptoms associated with these sounds. But if you do have associated pain, limited range of motion, limited strength, or have experienced some traumatic event that caused these sounds, then it may in fact be problematic...more on this to come.
Let’s start by addressing clicking and popping. For example, our shoulders, being one of the noisiest joints, are complex structures. They are known as “ball and socket” type joints with the “ball” being the head of the humerus (our upper arm bones) and the “socket” being part of the shoulder blade. “Ball and socket” type joints allow for a lot of motion, especially in the shoulder because of the size of this joint being comparable to a golf ball on a tee. Because of this, our shoulders are relatively unstable, making us rely heavily on the muscles around it to help stabilize. So oftentimes, the clicking or popping you feel, is simply all of the structures surrounding that joint (muscles, tendons, bursa) moving on one another. Similarly, popping and snapping in the ankles is another common complaint we hear. This is likely due to the tendons on the outside of your ankle slipping over bone. This could be due to a number of things, but most commonly the tendons are sitting in a more shallow groove or the band of tissue that usually holds them in place is weak, so there’s more of a chance for movement/slippage. Similar to the shoulder, the clicking may be irritating, but as long as it’s not painful, it’s almost never anything serious.
Another reason you could be experiencing pops in your joints could be due to the build up of air or gas in your joint spaces. This is known as a cavitation. Surrounding most joints is a capsule of liquid known as synovial fluid. This allows for lubrication of joint surfaces and smooth movement. For a cavitation to occur, a joint (or 2 opposing surfaces) is distracted up until a point where they separate rapidly resulting in the creation or collapse of an air cavity in the synovial fluid that produces a popping sound. This again is harmless, especially in the absence of pain. For years, it’s been thought that cracking or popping joints will give you arthritis. There’s a lot of research out there that disproves this theory such as Dr. Unger’s (who received a Nobel Prize for his research) study where he reported that he had been cracking the knuckles on his left hand at least twice daily over a 50-year period, while the right hand was never cracked and used as a control. The result? No arthritis in either hand.
Another sound I wanted to address is crepitus, or the grinding/creaking sensation our joints make. Crepitus is caused by the rubbing of cartilage on a joint surface or other soft tissues around your joints during movement. It’s common to hear this specific sound in the knee joint. Usually, your patella (knee cap) is supposed to glide smoothly over your femur (upper thigh bone) during bending and straightening of the knee. The cartilage in between these bones is what allows this smooth movement. Over time, cartilage surfaces may start to become rough, which is a normal part of aging and is the crunching sound you hear. By itself, crepitus generally is not a cause for concern. However, over the years, once the cartilage does become rough, it’s more likely that it will wear down and could in fact lead to arthritis and accompanied pain. BUT, you can combat this simply by staying active. Having a healthy body weight and strong muscles that surround your joints can help take some of the load off of them. Also, because cartilage has a relatively low blood supply, it relies heavily on movement and activity for the influx of blood and nutrients to help keep it healthy and strong. So stay moving.
The bottom line is that these sounds usually mean nothing at all. But if you ARE in fact dealing with any of these sounds and have associated pain, swelling, redness, had some kind of traumatic event, or are suddenly less able to move a joint, then it may be time to get it checked out. When left untreated, some joint conditions can lead to increasing pain, joint damage, and eventually, disability. But if identified and treated promptly, most joint problems can be successfully managed.
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