A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Does knuckle cracking lead to arthritis?

woman cracking her knucklesChildren have been cracking their knuckles for generations and thus the age-old question – does habitual knuckle cracking especially early on cause long-term effects or worse yet, arthritis?

Most people crack their knuckles to make their joints feel loose. This may be especially true for older children and teens who crack the joints in their neck and back.

Popping sounds are bubbles bursting

Stretching or bending your finger to pop the knuckle causes bones of the joint to pull apart. As they do, the connective tissue capsule surrounding the joint is stretched. When the joint is stretched far enough, pressure in the capsule drops low enough so that the bubbles, caused from gases rapidly releasing in the joint fluid, burst and make that popping sound.

Often a feeling of relief is reported after knuckle cracking since the joints tend to feel looser for a short time.

Cracking the habit

Another reason knuckle cracking is a popular pastime is the attention it gets.

“Sometimes kids may do this because they like the sound it makes, or because it makes their joints feel better. Some may do it when they are nervous or bored,” said Dr. Suzanne Wright, a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician.

“This tends to be a relatively harmless habit and studies have not found any evidence that knuckle crackers are more likely to develop arthritis. However, we do discourage children from doing this. There have been rare reports of acute minor injury when too much force was used to crack the knuckle,” Wright said.

Only one in-depth study on knuckle popping has been reported, according to Anatomy and Physiology Instructors’ Cooperative, which examined 300 knuckle crackers for signs of joint damage. While no direct connection was made between joint cracking and arthritis, those who habitually cracked their knuckles showed soft tissue damage and loss of grip strength.

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