By now, you're well-versed in all the strange sounds of the human body. There's the burps and farts, of course. But also the creaks, cracks and pops, too. And if your ankle is popping, you might be concerned: Is there something wrong? Should it sound like that? Am I just getting older?
Interestingly enough, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, it's not known exactly what's behind cracks and pops, though it may be from ligaments stretching and releasing or gas bubbles compressing within joints.
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Is Ankle Popping Always a Bad Sign?
The fortunate news is that it can be completely normal to, say, circle your foot and hear a pop — as long as you're not having pain or discomfort along with it.
"Popping of the ankles is harmless if there is no feeling of pain, instability or loss of function associated [with the sound]," Sridhar Yalamanchili, PT, MSPT, physical therapist with Atlantic Spine Center in New Jersey, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
It all depends on what's behind the pop, pop, pop, from ankle injuries and muscle weakness to tendon problems, he says.
1. An Ankle Injury
This is one of the worrisome reasons for popping.
"Serious ankle sprains that have not been rehabilitated fully can cause popping and a feeling of instability," Yalamanchili says. Repeated ankle injuries can lead to the development of scar tissue that compromise ankle function and stability.
Fix it: If, following an ankle sprain, the traditional RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) along with rehabilitation exercises (including range of motion exercises, notes Michigan Medicine) do not improve the sprain, see your doctor or a physical therapist.
“A structured physical therapy assessment and structured return-to-activity program will help avoid long-term problems,” he says. That will include structured balance exercises, as well as neuromuscular training to improve stability.
2. Popping Peroneal Syndrome
If you hear the popping but also feel as if your ankle is unstable (e.g. wobbly or prone to turn or roll), then your provider will consider "popping peroneal syndrome."
"This is a syndrome where the outside of the ankle has structural deficiencies compromising the ability of the tendon to stay in place over the lateral or outer side of the ankle," Yalamanchili says.
In addition, there may also be a tear in the peroneal tendon behind the popping sound, he adds. This can happen from a sudden injury or may be linked to an overuse injury from repetitive motion (like running, for instance).
Fix it: The exact treatment for popping peroneal syndrome or peroneal tendon injuries depends on how severe it is, but, according to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, it usually includes a cast or splint to keep the ankle immobile for a time, anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy.
3. Ankle Stiffness
If you bend your foot upward toward the rest of your body and hear popping, it may be due to stiffness, Yalamanchili says.
Fix it: If this is a persistent problem for you, he suggests stretching your calf muscles regularly. Start with these 5 stretches for tight calves.
When to See a Doctor
Remember, if your ankles pop but that's all they do, meaning you're not grimacing in pain or limping around, then you probably have nothing to worry about.
However, Yalamanchili recommends making an appointment with your doctor if you experience the following:
- Persistent ankle pain
- "Lightening" feeling, e.g. pins and needles, numbness or tingling in the foot
- Popping along with difficulty doing activities on your ankle or compromised athletic performance
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.