As temperatures rise and fall, do you notice your knees, shoulders or back start to get a little tight? Or when you move a certain way, do you hear pops and cracks? And what about when you’re in the middle your favorite workout and you hear a loud popping sound from your knees?
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Sometimes these sounds mean nothing, but when joint pops and crackles are accompanied by pain or swelling, it might mean something else entirely. So what exactly are your joints trying to tell you?
Why Joints Snap, Crackle and Pop
The most common joints that make sounds include the knees, ankles, knuckles, neck, hips and back. And there are a few different reasons why. In order for your joints to move smoothly, your body creates a fluid that acts as a lubricant and allows your joints move in multiple directions and rotate.
It’s called synovial fluid, and its job is to reduce friction between your cartilage and joints during any type of movement. Synovial fluid contains a mix of gases, and when a joint snaps or pops, the gases in the fluid are released and bubbles form — and that’s what causes those sounds you hear.
But that’s not all: Sometimes when a joint moves, the tendon that surrounds it may move out of place, and when that tendon shifts back into place, you’ll hear a snapping or cracking sound. And if you suffer from arthritis, sounds coming from arthritic joints are often caused by the loss of cartilage, causing a roughness on the joint surface.
Can You Avoid Joint Snaps and Pops?
Depending on whether or not there’s an underlying condition, it’s best to work on improving mobility of the joints that are responsible for the snapping and popping sounds and to ensure all muscles are being used equally.
Let’s say you’ve been hearing a popping sound from your knees. The muscles surrounding your knees may be tight, causing the tendons to become overstretched and pop back into place. You should incorporate exercises and stretches into your routine that will help strengthen all muscles in that area as well as other muscles that affect knee mobility and strength, including your hip flexors and IT bands.
Read more: The Best Workout for Bad Knees
Is It Harmful?
Yes and no. Sometimes the cracking of joints is a sign of arthritis and/or early degeneration of the joint surface (also known as crepitus).
How do you know? A clear sign that something more serious is going on within your joints is any pain, swelling, limited mobility or warmth near the area that’s cracking or popping.
Listen to Your Body
Whether you’re going for a run, lifting weights or simply walking around the office, it’s important to listen to what your body is telling you. If at any time joint noises are accompanied by pain, make an appointment with a doctor and get it checked out.
You don’t want any underlying conditions, such as tendinitis or bursitis, to worsen. A physical exam can help rule out a diagnosis of this nature and help you and your doctor decide the best path for proper treatment options.
About the Author
Armin Tehrany, M.D., is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care. He is a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and has served on the Board of Directors for the New York State Society of Orthopaedic Surgeons. After he received his medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine, he completed his residency in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. During that time he worked with the team physicians for the New York Jets, New York Rangers and New York Islanders.