Is Cracking Your Joints Bad For You?


If you are like me then you are a joint-cracking addict. I am almost constantly cracking my knuckles and neck to relieve stiffness which, I have done since I was 12 years old thanks to  my dad and older brother who made fantastic loud popping noises out of their necks!  For years I have heard that cracking your knuckles can lead to arthritis, but when you get an adjustment done from your Naturopathic Doctor or Chiropractor you hear the same noise…so is it really true? 
The first question we need to ask is what is it that actually makes that popping sound?
At a joint, where two bones meet they are held together by connective tissue and surrounded by a joint capsule (kind of like a bubble with fluid around the joint that keeps the bones lubricated so they aren't rubbing against one another).  This lubrication is called synovial fluid which, is made from dissolved oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
When you crack a knuckle, you first stretch the bones apart, creating extra space in the joint capsule. This leads to an increased volume of expanding synovial fluid and decreased pressure. It is the pressure releasing the dissolved gasses rapidly that causes the cracking sound. In medical terms the bubbles bursting in the synovial fluid are called cavitation. 
Interestingly after you crack your joints the first time, you won’t be able to do it again for the next 20-30 minutes while the gas dissolves back into the joint fluid.
So is there any damage to cracking?
The only real problem or damage that cracking joints could cause comes from forceful cracking— that means pushing a joint far past it's end-range or too soon after you have already cracked the same joint.
Several studies have shown that cracking knuckles does not lead to arthritis. However, there is a relationship between knuckle-cracking and hand swelling, loss of lower grip strength, ligament damage, soft tissue injuries and dislocation of tendons. These negative effects are what can happen after rapid, repeated stretching of ligaments, like what happens in repetitive sports injuries.  But for the lay person who occasionally cracks - the risk is quite minimal.
Why is cracking so satisfying?
Well when you stretch the joint capsule you are actually increasing the mobility in the joint, which can in turn activate the Golgi tendon organs (a group of nerve endings involved in human motion sense) that act to relax nearby muscles. This is why you can feel loose after an adjustment!  

Cheers,
Nadia




A long time athlete and health advocate,  Dr. Kumentas’ goal is to help her patients become excited about making positive lifestyle choices in order to enjoy healthier, happier lives.  Her driving force is a passion for healing the whole person on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level using carefully selected natural therapies, fitness, and integrated medicine.  She truly believes in the importance of practising what you preach and investing in your health.  
Dr. Nadia Kumentas practices at Zen Beginnings Wellness Centre in Toronto and has a special interest in dermatology, woman’s health, and pain management.

To learn more about Dr. Nadia Kumentas visit www.DrNadiaKumentas.com or contact her at nadia@zenbeginnings.com.

References:

Images from: www.corbis.com
http://www.advancedphysicalmedicine.org
Moholkar, Vijayanand S.; Pandit, Aniruddha B. (1997). "Bubble Behaviour in Hydrodynamic Cavitation: Effect of Turbulence". AIChe Journal 43 (6): 1641–1648.
Deweber K, Olszewski M, Ortolano R. (2011). "Knuckle cracking and hand osteoarthritis". J Am Board Fam Med 24 (2): 169–174.
Castellanos J., Axelrod D. (1990). "Effect of habitual knuckle cracking on hand functionAnnals of the Rheumatic Diseases 49 (5): 49(5):308–9. 
Unsworth, A; Dowson, D, Wright, V (1971 Jul). "'Cracking joints'. A bioengineering study of cavitation in the metacarpophalangeal joint."Annals of the rheumatic diseases 30(4): 348–58.

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