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Is Knuckle Cracking Bad for You and Lead to Arthritis

November 17, 2022
Read Time: 6 Minutes

Many people love the relieving sensation of a good knuckle pop, but is knuckle cracking bad for you? It may seem harmless, and people often crack their knuckles out of habit, but popping knuckles may lead to joint trouble down the road. Additionally, it may exacerbate current health conditions such as arthritis. At the same time, it's tempting to hear that "pop" that comes with extending or pressing on your knuckles throughout the day. It's essential to learn what makes knuckles crack and the ramifications it can have on your body.

As experts in the field of the musculoskeletal system, which is all things relating to bones, muscles, joints, and more, ChiroCare of Florida is here to break it down for you. Keep reading to learn more about what makes knuckles pop, why excessive joint cracking is bad, if it can lead to arthritis, and more.

What Makes Your Knuckles Pop?

Many people find cracking their knuckles to be a relieving habit. Whether you do it intentionally, when you're nervous, or without even thinking about it, we all pop our knuckles at one time or another. However, only a few know the actual mechanism in our bodies that produces this cracking sound and what happens to our knuckle joints as a result.

You're popping synovial fluid around the joints when you crack your knuckles. This fluid is responsible for keeping your knuckles well lubricated, operating at their peak condition, and helping to avoid hand pain. When you put pressure on your knuckles to produce the popping sound, you're separating the knuckle bones, causing bubbles to form in the fluid. This negative pressure on the fluid then creates that oh-so-relieving sound.

Additionally, cracking your knuckles causes movement in your hand and fingers' ligaments. The movement of these ligaments can also produce that popping sound people are used to. Interestingly, some people can't make this popping sound with their fingers. This is because of what makes knuckles crack. Experts believe that those who can't crack their knuckles have too much space between their knuckle joints, therefore not exerting enough negative pressure on the fluid that creates the bubbling and popping sound.

Is It Bad to Crack Your Knuckles a Lot?

Cracking your knuckles is bad for both the joints and ligaments in your hands and fingers. In severe cases, it can lead to finger dislocations and tendon injuries. These are short-term acute side effects that are painful to endure. They can require medical treatment and temporary swelling or loss of motion in the affected area. With costly X-rays and other imagery to identify the point of injury, cracking your knuckles the wrong way can cause extreme discomfort and lead to a large medical bill.

Cracking your knuckles a lot can also become distracting to others. If you're sitting in a meeting at work, continuously popping your knuckles, other people are likely to notice–even if it's simply second nature to you.

It's important to note that cracking your knuckles should never cause pain, swelling, or affect the shape of your joint or alignment of your finger. If you notice any of these effects, it's time to see a doctor as soon as possible.

There are many wives' tales and misconceptions about the long-term effects of cracking your knuckles excessively. Some say it makes your knuckles look larger over time and that it can lead to arthritis down the road. However, a peer-reviewed study in the journal of Arthritis and Rheumatology followed one doctor's findings over 50 years. The experiment was interesting.

For fifty years, this doctor cracked the knuckles on his left hand two to three times a day while never cracking the fingers on his right hand. After those five decades, his left hand (the one that he cracked every day) showed no significant changes or differences from the hand he left alone. Similar studies from sources such as the Swiss Medical Journal support the conclusion that knuckle cracking has no long-term effects.

Does Cracking Your Knuckles Lead to Arthritis?

This is the question many want the answer to–does cracking your knuckles lead to arthritis? It's probably a tidbit of information you've heard many times before, especially from someone nearby immediately post-pop. While popping knuckles can be a troublesome habit, the studies above show that there is no reason to believe that cracking your knuckles will lead to arthritis down the road. Harvard Health agrees that if you have no existing health conditions, popping knuckles is likely harmless, if not a slight annoyance.

However, there are other considerations to keep in mind. Over time, you may wear down the cartilage (the soft cushioning) between your joints, which can cause pain and inflammation. Additionally, if you already have arthritis and are wondering "what makes knuckle cracking bad," there are things you should know.

Aging, genetics, excessive wear and tear, and inflammatory health conditions are the leading causes of arthritis. Other factors that can affect the development of the condition may be environmental. Those who are obese are also more likely to develop the condition. But not those who crack their knuckles.

If you're already struggling with arthritis or undergoing rheumatoid arthritis treatment, it's best to steer clear of knuckle cracking, as challenging as it may be. Since your joints may be weakened or damaged by the condition, this can increase your risk of injury to the area, causing acute trauma. It can also be particularly painful, and you may lose your firmness of grip over time.

What Is Considered Excessive Knuckle Cracking?

Everyone pops their knuckles at one time or another. Kids may find the sound funny and do it more often, while adults often do it as a subconscious habit. The Mayo Clinic reports that nearly half of all people crack their knuckles regularly. Excessive knuckle cracking, though, is another story.

"Habitual knuckle crackers," as they're called, are popping knuckles five times a day or more. Men are more likely to become habitual knuckle crackers than women for unclear reasons. If you're an excessive knuckle cracker, it's essential to consider why. It's often psychological. Some people do it to release tension, while others do it more when they're nervous or stressed. Others like the feeling of the stretch, and the cracking sound is relieving.

If you're a chronic knuckle cracker, you likely won't cause long-term damage to your fingers or hands, but you may want to look at why and how often you're popping your knuckles and find ways to reduce the habit.

When to Schedule an Appointment

Is knuckle cracking bad? The consensus in the medical community is no, except for the risk of acute injuries such as dislocation or soft tissue tear. However, there are times when seeing a doctor or scheduling an appointment with a chiropractor may be beneficial.

If you currently have arthritis, ChiroCare of Florida provides treatment to help you find relief. Additionally, if you are suffering from an acute injury related to cracking your knuckles, we have therapies available to help you heal faster. And if you're noticing pain, swelling, or inflammation around your knuckles, hands, or fingers, it's wise to seek an evaluation to rule out underlying health conditions.

Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

About the Author:
Dr. Steven Schwartz
Raised in Coral Springs, Florida, Dr. Steven Schwartz is a major advocate for the South Florida community. CEO of ChiroCare of Florida, Dr. Schwartz has grown the group from one facility to 11. Whether he’s treating patients or volunteering for community service, Dr. Schwartz’s long-term goal is to ensure that each and every patient can experience the ChiroCare of Florida difference.
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