Causes of Popping Joints

An elderly woman suffering from joint pain.

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

While this rarely causes pain, it can be unsettling, especially if it occurs frequently or is significant.

In general, joint popping does not cause arthritis, is not a sign of a serious medical illness, and is not dangerous. In rare cases, however, you may need to see your healthcare provider about it.

Popping can occur in any joint of the body. Some of the common ways this occurs include flexing or rotating your ankle, opening and closing your hand, or moving your neck.

In some cases, popping is something you might feel rather than hear, especially in your knee.

Common Culprits

Here's a look at some of the most common reasons behind popping joints, roughly ordered from less concerning to more concerning.

Nitrogen Bubbles

The tissues of your joints normally make synovial fluid to lubricate the surrounding area, protecting them from abrasion as you move.

Bubbles of nitrogen, a component of this fluid, can form in your joints. When those bubbles escape, in a process known as cavitation, they make a popping noise.

When you crack your knuckles, you are forcing the nitrogen bubbles inside the synovial joint fluid out.

This can also occur unintentionally 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 crack the same joint until about 10 to 30 minutes pass.

Ligament Movements

Ligaments are composed of strong fibrous connective tissue that connects bones.

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 any pain at all.


Therapeutic and massage procedures can also cause popping sounds with the release of tight joints and movement of structures. These procedures should only be done by an experienced and trusted professional.

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 your joints making loud noises when you move. this is known as crepitus.

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 in a condition known as snapping hip syndrome, also known as dancer's hip.

Surgery or Injury

Popping can be more frequent after joint surgery or a joint injury. It often subsides as you heal and regain flexibility and range of motion through exercise and movement, but can continue if ligaments form scar tissue known as adhesions.

Ligament Tearing

A popping sound may be related to the actual tearing of a ligament, which will cause pain and swelling.

When to Seek Medical Help

Although a popping joint can be startling, it is not usually caused by a serious problem, and there is generally nothing that needs to be done (for adults or kids). In some cases, popping can occur as part of a degenerative disorder that makes the joint susceptible to changes that produce these and other sounds.

Unless it is accompanied by more concerning symptoms such as pain and swelling, you should not worry. However, cracking noises, which often sound like popping, can be a sign of problems that need treatment, like gout, inflammation, and joint dislocation.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

You should see a healthcare provider if your popping is accompanied by:

A Word From Verywell

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.

You can keep your joints healthy by exercising regularly and avoiding excessive repetitive motions and injuries.

4 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. Powers T, Kelsberg G, Safranek S. Clinical Inquiry: Does knuckle popping lead to arthritis?. J Fam Pract. 2016;65(10):725-726.

  2. Dunning J, Mourad F, Barbero M, et al. Bilateral and multiple cavitation sounds during upper cervical thrust manipulation. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2013;14:24. doi:10.1186/1471-2474-14-24

  3. Bureau NJ. Sonographic evaluation of snapping hip syndrome. J Ultrasound Med. 2013;32(6):895-900. doi:10.7863/ultra.32.6.895

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Ligament Injuries to the Knee.

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."