By John E. Blank, MD

John E. Blank, M.D., Hand Surgery, Tuckahoe OrthopaedicsWhether in children or adults, frequent popping, snapping, and cracking of the hands, feet, and joints often causes alarm and concern in parents and loved ones — as well as minor annoyance. Patients suffering from arthritis of the hand and finger also worry whether excessive knuckle popping can damage or worsen their condition.

Is popping your knuckles bad for you? And if not, are there ever any signs that it is? That’s what we’ll tackle in today’s post on the science behind knuckle popping.

Should You Be Worried About Popping Your Knuckles?

Fortunately, the general consensus of the medical community is that knuckle popping is not an unhealthy habit and does not cause or increase a patient’s risk of developing arthritis. Several studies found no evidence that knuckle popping leads to joint damage, loss of cartilage, or chronic diseases such as arthritis.

Knuckle popping accompanied by pain, swelling, or discomfort, on the other hand, is a cause for concern. This may indicate that something beyond simple knuckle popping is going on and you should be evaluated by a qualified doctor.

The Science Behind Knuckle Popping

Popping your knuckles doesn’t hurt, even though it sounds like it should. But that’s because when you pop your fingers, knuckles, or joints, you aren’t actually breaking or snapping anything. Rather, you’re causing a pressure change within your joint that triggers a popping sound.

When you position your joint to pop it, you force fluid to move within the joint. This pulls gas out of its dissolved state and into a liquid state which creates a popping sensation or sound much like a bubble popping.

Under an ultrasound, researchers heard the sound of the knuckle crack before seeing a bright light. The ultrasound captured the change of pressure in the synovial fluid and the release of gas that caused the pop.

Can Popping Your Knuckles Worsen Existing Conditions?

Even though popping your knuckles might be harmless for a healthy person, it makes sense to wonder whether or not this habit might complicate the health of patients with existing conditions such as arthritis or tendonitis. Fortunately, so long as the popping is not accompanied with pain or discomfort, it’s not a problem. In fact, popping your fingers can be a temporary fix for flexibility within a joint causing a short burst in the joint’s range of motion.

However, if knuckle popping is hiding a more serious issue such as tendon snapping, it may indicate a calcified tunnel within your finger. In this scenario, the tendon of your finger may be having a hard time passing through the tunnel and it can trigger or pop. A snapping tendon may need a steroid injection, splinting or stapling to encourage realignment, or surgery. Situations like these make it even more important to see a doctor and have your knuckle popping habit analyzed.

In a healthy adult, popping your knuckles does not cause any damage. However, if you ever experience pain or swelling within the joints you’re popping, it’s important to visit an orthopaedic doctor for an examination to rule out arthritis or other joint-specific diseases that may be hiding behind your frequent pops.

Request an appointment with a physician at Tuckahoe Orthopaedics today if your knuckle popping causes pain.

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