Causes of Wrist Cracking and Popping

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Popping and cracking in your wrist (also known as crepitus) can be an uncomfortable sensation that arises during many of your daily activities. Unfortunately, the origins of this joint noise are not always clear-cut. Paying attention to your symptoms can help you identify the potential cause, however. The information below highlights the most common reasons why your wrist is making noise.

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Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones in your wrist begins to thin and wear away. Normally, this cartilage helps the bones in your hand slide smoothly along one another when you move your wrist. When the tissue begins to degenerate, however, friction develops, and clicking and popping can occur with movement.

The increased friction associated with osteoarthritis can also cause new bone to build up in the joint, further impacting your range of motion and potentially causing popping and cracking

In some instances, a condition called Kienböck's disease can also lead to wrist osteoarthritis. In this syndrome, the blood flow to one of the wrist bones—called the lunate—is impacted and the bone slowly dies. As this occurs, the bone collapses and normal hand motion is disrupted, leading to cartilage degeneration.

In addition, other systemic forms of arthritis (like psoriatic arthritis or rheumatoid arthritis) can also cause similar joint changes and lead to popping and cracking in the wrist.

Other Symptoms

In addition to joint noise, there are several other symptoms that can indicate you have osteoarthritis in your wrist. These include:

  • Stiffness in the joints, particularly in the morning
  • Puffiness or swelling
  • Achiness deep within the wrist
  • Difficulty dressing, cooking, or carrying items

Treatments

Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but it can be treated. Icing, over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, and avoiding irritating activities can be helpful after a painful symptom flare-up. Other treatment options include:

  • A wrist splint: This may be useful for temporarily limiting painful movements and decreasing your popping or cracking.
  • Increasing hand mobility: These exercises can help gently strengthen the surrounding muscles.
  • Physical therapy: This may be recommended by your physician to guide you through appropriate techniques.
  • A pain-relieving steroid injection: This may be suggested to reduce your soreness.

Unfortunately, in some cases, surgery may ultimately be necessary if your arthritis is severe enough. This can include the removal of one or more wrist bones, the fusion of several bones together, or a total wrist replacement.

When to See a Doctor

If your wrist symptoms are progressively worsening or if they begin to impact your daily activities, it is important to speak to your physician. Osteoarthritis is typically diagnosed with a thorough examination and an X-ray, which can help detect any changes to the joint space or new bone formation.

In some cases, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may also be ordered as it provides a more detailed look at the bone and the surrounding structures. If your physician is trying to rule out rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis, blood tests may also be necessary to provide a correct diagnosis.

Tendonitis

Muscles are attached or anchored to a bone by a thick cord-like structure called a tendon. Tendinitis occurs when one of these structures becomes inflamed or irritated. This condition can happen to anyone but is most often seen in people who perform repetitive activities like computer work or who frequently lift or carry objects.

In addition, sports with repetitive wrist movements like tennis or golf can also be to blame. Regardless of the cause, because this tendon inflammation alters the way your hand muscle functions, it can lead to a clunking feeling or noise when moving the wrist.

Other Symptoms

In addition to crepitus, another extremely common complaint with tendinitis is pain. This pain is usually much worse with activity and better (if not resolved) when you keep the wrist still. In addition to pain, symptoms can include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Being warm to the touch
  • Weakness

Treatments

One of the most important ways to treat tendonitis is to avoid or modify the activity that is causing the tendon irritation in the first place. Treatments can include:

  • Taking a break from a sport
  • Using a wrist splint to take some of the pressure off of the muscle during activities like typing
  • Icing and using anti-inflammatory medications to reduce the pain, swelling, and inflammation.
  • Cortisone injections to decrease pain
  • Physical therapy to work on gradually strengthening the muscles in the area

In rarer cases, surgery may even be necessary if the typical early treatments fail to address your tendon condition.

When to See a Doctor

Tendinitis is usually relieved with some of the conservative treatment methods discussed above. However, if your symptoms are worsening or if the pain begins to linger even after the aggravating activity, it is important to speak to your doctor.

Be sure not to ignore the pain and push through it as this may lead to further tendon damage and ultimately to surgery.              

De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis

Another tendon-related issue that can cause noise at the wrist is de Quervain’s tenosynovitis. Muscle tendons run through a tunnel-like structure called a sheath that helps them glide smoothly as the muscle moves. In people with de Quervain’s, the tendon sheath at the base of the thumb gets inflamed, leading to increased friction in the area. This, in turn, causes a popping or snapping sensation near the inside of the wrist with thumb movement.

What Is the Finkelstein Test?

One way to diagnose de Quervain’s is by performing a Finkelstein test. To do this, with your hand turned on its side, thumb side up, make a fist with your fingers wrapped around your thumb, and then move your fist downward toward your little finger. If this movement causes pain under the thumb, you may have this condition.

Other Symptoms

Symptoms of de Quervain’s tenosynovitis include:

  • Pain on the thumb side of the wrist and into the forearm, particularly with hand movements like gripping or twisting
  • Swelling on the thumb side of the wrist and into the forearm
  • Feeling like your thumb movements are “sticky” or labored as the condition becomes progressively worse

Treatment

Initial treatment for this issue involves:

  • Icing the area
  • Avoiding aggravating activities
  • Wearing a thumb splint that restricts potentially irritating hand movements
  • Using pain medication and getting steroid injections into the sheath

In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to decompress the thumb tendons by cutting into the sheath itself. This is relatively uncommon and is only recommended if conservative treatments fail.

When to See a Doctor

If your thumb symptoms do not improve with the conservative measures listed above, it is a good idea to speak to your doctor. This is also true if you are unable to control your hand swelling or if your thumb movements are getting progressively more limited.

Your physician can perform a thorough examination and can recommend the treatments that are appropriate for you.

Joint Instability

Excessive or abnormal movement in the bones of the wrist can make the joint unstable and can contribute to popping or cracking noises. This type of instability can occur for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, a traumatic injury like a car accident or a fall onto an outstretched hand can cause a subluxation (a partial separation of a joint) or a dislocation (a complete joint separation). This may occur at one or several of your wrist joints. In certain instances, this type of injury may also be accompanied by a:

All of these can further contribute to wrist instability.

One frequently injured area that can contribute to wrist instability is the triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC). This group of ligaments and cartilage stabilizes the ulnar, or fifth-finger, side of the wrist. Following trauma to this area, the normal movement of your joints is altered and crepitus can occur with hand movement.

Other instances of joint instability occur as a result of a chronic condition. In some people, hypermobility disorders like Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome cause laxity, or looseness, in the body’s ligaments or connective tissue and excessive movement in the joints (also known as being double-jointed).

Ultimately, this hypermobility leads to frequent joint subluxation or dislocation, even during seemingly harmless movements or activities. This joint disruption can also cause crepitus and can eventually lead to early-onset osteoarthritis.

Other Symptoms

After a traumatic injury, you may experience:

  • Significant pain and swelling in the area where the impact occurs
  • Bruising in the hand, wrist, or upper arm
  • Inflammation that causes the same areas to become warm to the touch
  • Damage to your bones, ligaments, or cartilage that makes normal hand and wrist movements difficult or impossible to perform

Depending on the condition, chronic (long-term) causes of wrist instability can lead to a variety of other symptoms, including:

  • Changes in flexibility
  • Widespread pain
  • Severe fatigue (despite a full night’s rest)
  • Problems with your bladder or bowel functions

Treatment

Following a fall or other type of trauma, imaging is commonly needed to visualize the damaged area. X-rays typically are taken to rule out a fractured bone, and an MRI may be needed to assess other structures like the ligaments and cartilage.

Depending on the degree of damage, treatment can consist of:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Movement-restricting splints
  • Cortisone injections
  • Surgical repair of the bone or soft tissue

When treating the wrist hypermobility associated with chronic disorders like Marfan or Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, improving stability in your joints is important. This can include:

  • Gentle strengthening exercises
  • Physical therapy

In addition, pain and anti-inflammatory medications can be used to manage the joint soreness that can occur. A splint can also temporarily help reduce your wrist movement and decrease the pain or snapping associated with it.

When to See a Doctor

Anytime a high-velocity impact or fall occurs, it is important to immediately have the injury looked at by a physician. Failure to do so can increase the likelihood that more damage occurs, which will prolong your recovery even further.

In addition, if your wrist crepitus is accompanied by any of the following additional symptoms, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor:

  • Widespread pain
  • Hypermobility at multiple other joints
  • Bowel or bladder dysfunction
  • Severe daily fatigue

A thorough evaluation can help you get an appropriate diagnosis and determine whether you have a hypermobility disorder.

A Word From Verywell

Popping or cracking in the wrist can cause discomfort and can significantly impact your daily life. Despite this, however, it is important to not give up hope. In most cases, there are conservative treatments available that can relieve your symptoms. Be sure to speak with your doctor about what you are experiencing in order to come away with a plan that is right for you.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Arthritis of the wrist.

  2. Penn Medicine. Treatment for tendonitis in the hand and wrist.

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. De Quervain’s tendinosis.

  4. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. TFCC tear. Updated 2018. 

  5. Hypermobility Syndromes Association. What are hypermobility syndromes. Updated March 2019.