Causes of Popping Joints

What causes popping joints and when to see a doctor

An elderly woman suffering from joint pain.
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Almost everyone has had the experience of cracking a knuckle joint. Most people have also occasionally felt or heard a sudden "pop" of a knee, hip or shoulder joint.

While joint popping rarely causes any pain, it can be unsettling, especially if it occurs frequently or is especially loud. In general, joint popping does not cause disease, is not a sign of a serious medical illness, and it is not dangerous. There are several causes of joint popping, and, in rare cases, you may need to see your doctor about it.

Causes of Popping Joints

Popping can occur in any joint of the body. Flexing or rotating your ankle, opening and closing your hand, or moving your neck are some of the common ways this can happen. In some cases, popping is something you might feel rather than hear, especially in your knee.

Popping joints can occur for any number of reasons, including normal fluid and gas in your joints, rubbing of bones or cartilage in your joints against each other, and movements of your tendons and ligaments.

Among some of the most common causes of popping joints:

  • Nitrogen bubbles: Popping can occur as nitrogen bubbles escape when you move your joints. The tissue of your joints normally makes synovial fluid to lubricate the surrounding area, protecting it from abrasion as you move. Bubbles of nitrogen, a component of the synovial fluid, can form in your joints, and when the nitrogen bubbles escape, a process called cavitation, they make a popping noise. This can occur when you crack your knuckles, forcing the nitrogen bubbles inside the synovial joint fluid to suddenly escape and create an audible popping. It can also occur when you walk, exercise, or get up from a still position. It takes time for nitrogen bubbles to form again, which is why you can't repetitively crack the same joint until about 10-30 minutes pass.
  • Rough joint surfaces: Joint surfaces can become increasingly rough due to cartilage loss or the development of osteophytes (bone spurs) associated with osteoarthritis. This can result in loud noises coming from your joints when you move. In osteoarthritis, the popping may occur more frequently as the disease progresses.
  • Tendon snapping: Tendons are composed of fibrous connective tissue that connects muscles with bones. They can make popping noises as they snap around a joint. This is seen commonly with a condition known as snapping hip syndrome, also known as dancer's hip.
  • Manipulation: Therapeutic and massage procedures can also cause popping sounds as your tight joints are released and the structures move. These procedures should only be done by an experienced and trusted professional.
  • Ligament movements: Ligaments are composed of strong fibrous connective tissue that connect bones to each other. Your ligaments can be tight and may pop when you suddenly move or rotate at an unusual angle. This can cause a jolt of pain, or it may not cause pain at all.
  • Ligament tearing: A popping sound may be related to the actual tearing of a ligament, which will cause pain, and swelling.
  • Adhesions: After a joint injury or surgery, ligaments can form scar tissue known as adhesions which are prone to popping and cracking.
  • Surgery or injury: Popping can be more frequent after joint surgery or a joint injury. It often subsides as you heal when you regain flexibility and range of motion through exercise and movement.

When to See a Doctor

Although a popping joint can be startling, there is generally nothing that needs to be done. In some cases, popping can occur as part of a degenerative disorder that makes the joint susceptible to these and other sounds. Unless it is accompanied by more concerning symptoms such as pain and swelling, you do not need to worry

You should see a doctor if your popping is accompanied by

A Word From Verywell

Popping sounds and cracking sensations in joints are quite common. On their own, popping joints are not predictive of future problems. You do not need to worry that the habit of cracking your knuckles could cause you to have problems later in life. And, in general, if you or your child has popping or cracking joints, you do not need to seek medical attention unless it is painful or accompanied by other symptoms.

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