Graham had been working solidly on his computer for hours and the tension building in his neck, shoulders and arms told him that it was time to have a break. He interlocks his fingers and stretches them forward causing his knuckles to ‘pop’ like bubble-wrap. He then tilted his head to one side. Grabbing the back of his head with one hand and pushing up on his chin with the heel of his other hand, he pushes somewhat violently until he hears a ‘crack’ of relief emanating from his neck. Right in the middle of his contortions one of his colleagues walks into his office.
“Ooh, that’s gross. You know you’ll get arthritis if you keep doing that to yourself,” she declared.
“Who cares?” replied Graham indignantly, “It feels so much better.”
With my background as a chiropractor, I have often been called upon to solve arguments between family, friends and work colleagues on this particular question…
“Does ‘cracking’ of the joints give you arthritis?”
But firstly, you may be wondering what actually causes the ‘cracking’ noise of the joints?
A lot of people think that it is bones going in and out of alignment…. Incorrect.
Others think that it is bones grinding over other bones and ligaments…guess again.
It is actually the sound of the expansion of dissolved gas in the fluid filled joints.
It is much like opening a bottle of champagne. Both a bottle of champagne and your joints are filled with fluid and dissolved gases. When you release the pressure by removing the cork from the bottle or moving the joint in a certain direction the dissolved gas in the champagne and your joint expands into bubbles causing the ‘popping’ sound. Scientists call this process cavitation.
In fact if you x-rayed your finger immediately after you ‘cracked’ it, you can see a small air bubble in the joint space. This is also why you can’t ‘crack’ your finger straight after doing it the first time. The gas has already expanded.
But does it cause arthritis?
I came across the answer to this question at a conference in the early 1990s. Researchers looked at 100,000 people. Half of them habitually ‘cracked’ their knuckles and the other half never ‘cracked’ their knuckles. They x-rayed their hands to look for signs of arthritic change in the fingers.
Of those people who habitually ‘cracked’ their knuckles, one in every eight showed signs of arthritic change on x-ray. However they found arthritic change in five in every eight people who never ‘cracked’ their knuckles.
But a word of caution to all you prospective knuckle ‘crackers’ out there. The results don’t mean that you should go out and start to ‘crack’ your knuckles and your back. In fact, chiropractors and osteopaths, who are often labeled as ‘back crackers’ don’t recommend that you ‘crack’ your own joints. Why?
It is simply a waste of time and energy. When chiropractors and osteopaths ‘crack’ your joints in what they call an adjustment they only do this to the joints that are misaligned or lacking the proper flexibility. This type of joint ‘cracking’ is extremely beneficial to improving your alignment and flexibility. When you try to crack your own joints the chances are that the joint that moves is already properly aligned and is already flexible. You are not helping the cause so just leave it alone.
“But why does it feel so good when you do it?” asked one avid self-joint-‘cracking’ fan.
It definitely feels better because the cracking of the joint stimulates mechanical nerves and releases some endorphins that help inhibit pain. This even occurs in the spine when you ‘crack’ a joint that is already fine and doesn’t need ‘cracking’. This is because your spinal joints have branches of these mechanical nerve fibers that pass to other spinal joints that are placed well above and below the joint.
So what is the final verdict?
‘Cracking’ the knuckles or cracking any joints does not cause arthritis.
In fact, particular adjustments, manipulations and mobilizations performed on the correct areas by a trained professional can go a long way towards helping reduce arthritis.
If you are doing stretches and you happen to feel your back go ‘crack’, it is perfectly fine and natural but chiropractors and osteopaths alike strongly urge you not to try to force your neck, back or any other joints to go ‘crack’. If you have the urge to ‘crack’ your joints, leave it to the professionals.