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Snap, Crackle, Pop: Why Our Joints Make Noise

September 27, 2021

You may be concerned about the clicks, cracks, snaps and pops you hear from your joints when doing everyday activities, like standing up first thing in the morning, dancing or walking up the stairs.

Called “crepitus,” these sounds can be unsettling, but they’re usually not a cause for concern. We’ll often hear from our neck, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles involuntarily, and many people crack their knuckles.  

Why Do Joints Make Noise?

The body’s musculoskeletal system is made up of bones, cartilage, connective tissues, ligaments and tendons. They all work together to move your body, support your body’s weight and maintain your posture. Sometimes, joints may make sounds that leave you wondering why. Common causes of joint noises include:

Escaping gases or air bubbles in joint fluid. Synovial fluid acts as a lubricant for your joints. This fluid contains gases, including carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen. When joints pop or crack (either by accident or you’ve purposely “cracked” them), that sound you hear is caused by air bubbles popping in the fluid being released.

Friction in the joint. When your joints move, the nearby tendons move slightly out of place, which can cause friction in the joint. You might hear a noise when there is friction, such as when cartilage surfaces rub together or a tendon is sliding back into place. This is especially common in the knees and ankles. The snapping of stretched ligaments as they slide across bony surfaces of the joints can also cause noises.

Arthritis/loss of joint cartilage. Arthritis causes the cartilage in joints to deteriorate. This can cause pain, stiffness and swelling. If you hear creaking or cracking noises that are associated with pain, this can may be a symptom of arthritis. Many people find temporary pain relief for achy joints with over-the-counter medications, ice packs, gentle stretching and taking warm Epsom salt baths.

Aging. As you age, you may hear more cracking, popping and clicking noises coming from your joints. As we get older, the cartilage in our joints may begin to wear down, causing more friction that leads to noisier joints. This usually isn’t cause for concern unless the sounds are accompanied by pain or swelling. 

When To See a Doctor About Your Noisy Joints

Most joint popping is nothing to worry about. However, if your joint noises are accompanied by pain, this may be a signal from your body that something needs attention. Potential issues include:

Arthritis, which is a chronic, degenerative condition that causes cartilage to rub away, leaving bones unprotected from normal daily activity.  When bones grind together due to lack of cartilage, this can lead to pain, stiffness, swelling and decreased range of motion. 

Bursitis. This is caused by inflammation of bursa — the small, fluid-filled sacs that act as a cushion for the bones, muscles and tendons surrounding your joints. When the bursa is injured or inflamed, joints may rub together, causing cracking, creaking and popping sounds that come with pain.

Tendinitis, which is the inflammation of a tendon, the fibrous cords attached to bones. It is commonly seen in the elbows, heels, knees, shoulders and wrists. The condition can cause the affected tendon to move in an awkward way that may cause a popping sound.

See your doctor if you are experiencing joint pain with or without sounds. They can ask you about your symptoms and run diagnostic tests to determine if a health condition or injury are causing pain.

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