Joint Popping (Crepitus)

Joint popping (crepitus) refers to audible sounds, including popping, cracking, and grinding, that results from movement of a joint. Joint popping can also cause the sensation of pressure being released within the joint. Joint popping is a common occurrence from having stiff joints, but it can sometimes occur from more serious issues. 

This article will discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatments for joint popping, and when to see a healthcare provider. 

Woman holding her knee

Sergey Mironov / Getty Images

Symptoms of Joint Popping

Joint popping is characterized by audible sounds from within joints with joint movement. You may also feel the sensation of pressure being released when these “pops” occur, or other sensations like cracking and grinding within your joints. 

Common areas of your body where your joints may pop include your:

  • Fingers
  • Knees
  • Hips
  • Elbows
  • Shoulders
  • Toes 
  • Neck
  • Back
  • Wrist

Signs of a Joint Dislocation or Tear

If you experience a large pop in one of your joints accompanied by significant pain, swelling, and a difficulty or inability to move your joint through its full range of motion, seek medical attention immediately. These could be signs of joint dislocation, or a ligament or tendon tear. 

Causes of Joint Popping

The most common causes of joint popping are from either stiff or loose joints. While a joint that is too stiff or too loose can cause a joint to pop, the underlying reasons of the two conditions are quite different. 

Stiff Joints

Stiff joints, which can result from arthritis or lack of joint movement from staying in the same position for a long period of time, can cause pressure to build up within your joints. When you attempt to move your joints through their full range of motion, tiny gas bubbles are formed within the joints from the built-up pressure, causing a popping sound as the pressure is released. This popping is called a joint cavitation.

After the pressure is released with a pop, your joints will likely feel less stiff and you will be able to move them more easily. When joint stiffness is the cause of your joint popping, your joint will typically only pop once until a certain amount of time has passed before it can pop again. This is referred to as a refractory period and lasts at least 20 minutes.

Loose Joints

Loose joints can also cause joint popping if joints are not being held securely in place. Joints can pop with movement if they partially dislocate (move out of place), which is called joint subluxation, or fully dislocate. 

Loose joints that can partially or fully dislocate with movement often occur from damage or laxity in the ligaments that hold the joints in place, resulting in joint instability. Joint popping from loose joints can occur occasionally, or with more severe cases, can occur every time the joint is moved. 

Additionally, joint popping from joint instability can also affect the shoulder if the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles that stabilize the shoulder are torn.

How to Treat Joint Popping

Treatment for joint popping will differ depending on the underlying cause. For joints that pop because they are stiff, applying heat to the surrounding area by taking a hot shower, bath, or using a heating pad can help warm up and increase blood flow to the area. This can help reduce stiffness and allow your joints to move more smoothly.

Exercising your joints through their full range of motion can help improve lubrication within your joints to allow them to move more smoothly. Tight muscles surrounding your joints can also restrict your movement and cause increased pressure within your joints, leading to stiffness. Stretching tight muscles around your stiff joints can therefore help decrease your stiffness and likelihood of joint popping.

When to See a Physical Therapist

If your joint stiffness and joint popping become ongoing problems, you should schedule an appointment with a physical therapist. A physical therapist will evaluate the mobility of your joints and strength of surrounding muscles and create an individualized exercise program to help improve your symptoms. 

If your joints pop because they are too loose and unstable, specific exercises to help strengthen the surrounding muscles can help to stabilize and support your joints. Popping and instability in the shoulder, in particular, can often be improved with strengthening of the rotator cuff muscles. 

If you dislocate a joint, you will need to seek immediate medical attention from a healthcare provider to put your joint back in place. Sometimes this can be done manually by repositioning the joint, while other times surgery is needed to correct the alignment.

Following repositioning of your dislocated joint, which is called a reduction, your affected joint may need to be immobilized with the use of a brace or sling to stabilize your joint, which allows it to heal properly. Physical therapy will then be needed after the initial first weeks of healing to restore the range of motion of your joint. Physical therapy will also improve the strength of surrounding muscles to prevent another dislocation in the future.

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Joint Popping

Joint popping can have varying complications and risks depending on whether your joints are too stiff or too loose. Stiff joints tend to worsen over time without exercise and regular movement. Joint popping from joint instability significantly increases the risk of subluxation or dislocation. 

Subluxation, or partial dislocation of a joint, repeatedly stresses and stretches the joint capsule and ligaments that hold a joint in place. When these structures are weakened, they are less likely to hold your joint in place and your joint is at a higher risk of dislocating. 

Joint dislocation poses several risks and can be dangerous. Not only does joint dislocation cause significant pain, but it can also result in damage to nearby structures like veins, arteries, and nerves, which can cause permanent damage and disability. 

Joint dislocation can also affect the ability of your joint to move, due to the inflammation and damage to the joint that results. This can have a significant impact on your daily activities. 

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Joint Popping?

Joint popping is most often assessed through a physical examination from a healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will move your affected joint, and will ask you to move it as well, to see when and how the popping occurs. Your healthcare provider will also test the strength of the surrounding muscles around the joint. 

If the popping is significant and your joint lacks stability, you may have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) performed. An MRI will be able to assess the structure of your ligaments surrounding your joint to check for damage. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you experience a large pop in one of your joints accompanied by significant pain, swelling, and difficulty or inability to move your joint through its full range of motion, seek medical attention immediately. These could be signs of joint dislocation or a ligament or tendon tear. 

If your joint popping has been ongoing for several months, you should also see a healthcare provider to help determine the underlying cause. A diagnosis of arthritis or joint instability may be causing your symptoms, which can be managed with physical therapy.


Joint popping is an audible sound that results when a joint is moved. Joint popping typically occurs from a joint that is too stiff or too loose. Most people find relief through exercise and physical therapy, but severe and painful forms of joint popping may require surgery to stabilize the affected joints, especially if a joint is dislocated or if a ligament or tendon is torn. 

A Word From Verywell

Joint popping is commonly a result of stiff joints, but if the popping causes a large shift in movement in your joint, pain, and/or joint dislocation, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.

Joint instability that causes joints to pop can cause significant damage to your joint and its surrounding structures which can result in permanent damage. Physical therapy and surgery may be needed for severe and ongoing joint popping. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes joint popping?

    Joints that are too stiff or too loose can cause joints to pop with movement.

  • Can arthritis cause joint popping?

    Yes. Arthritis can cause joint inflammation that stiffens and increases pressure within joints, causing them to pop when they are moved and the pressure is released. 

  • How can I get rid of joint popping?

    You can decrease the likelihood of joint popping by exercising and improving the mobility of stiff joints, or strengthening surrounding muscles to support loose joints. Sometimes surgery is needed to reposition and secure a joint in place to prevent it from popping.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cramer GD, Ross K, Raju PK, et al. Quantification of cavitation and gapping of lumbar zygapophyseal joints during spinal manipulative therapy. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2012;35(8):614–621. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2012.06.007

  2. Kawchuk GN, Fryer J, Jaremko JL, Zeng H, Rowe L, Thompson R. Real-Time Visualization of Joint Cavitation. PLoS ONE. 2015:10(4);e0119470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119470

  3. Gombera MM, Sekiya JK. Rotator cuff tear and glenohumeral instability : a systematic review. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2014 Aug;472(8):2448-56. doi: 10.1007/s11999-013-3290-2. Erratum in: Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2015 Feb;473(2):751

  4. Katz JN, Arant KR, Loeser RF. Diagnosis and Treatment of Hip and Knee Osteoarthritis: A Review. JAMA. 2021 Feb 9;325(6):568-578. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.22171

  5. Song SJ, Park CH, Liang H, Kim SJ. Noise around the Knee. Clin Orthop Surg. 2018 Mar;10(1):1-8. doi: 10.4055/cios.2018.10.1.1

  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dislocations.

  7. Martetschläger F, Kraus N, Scheibel M, Streich J, Venjakob A, Maier D. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Acute Dislocation of the Acromioclavicular Joint. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2019 Feb 8;116(6):89-95. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2019.0089

By Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT
Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, is a medical writer and a physical therapist at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey.