It’s a question that never really seems to have a definitive answer. Myths and misinformation confuse the issue. So, should you stop cracking your knuckles? Some studies claim that it’s a habit that could become harmful. Others indicate that the occasional manoeuvre can alleviate the joints. Which is the truth?
Whatever the case, joint popping or knuckle cracking are quite commonplace. Some use it as a way of relieving tension. Others find that it eases aches and pains.
We’re going to try to give you a bit more insight into this practice. Should you knock it on the head? When has it become a habit that might damage your bones? Let’s have a look at the facts and fictions.
What’s the crack?
When you pop your knuckles, wrists or ankles, it means that the bubbles are bursting. This is not necessarily cause for celebration. These bubbles form in the liquid lining that lines your joints and keeps them from scraping against one another.
Your joints, remember, are where your bones come together. The synovial fluid between them is what keeps everything lubricated. When, for instance, you crack a finger joint, it separates and air escapes.
The fluid capsule that surrounds the joint stretches and enlarges. This lowers its pressure. As a result, bubbles form from the dissolved gases in the synovial fluid. They then burst, producing that familiar popping noise that we all love so much.
It takes half an hour for the gas to settle back into the liquid. If you must crack your joints, wait for 30 minutes between each popping session. This will allow for the necessary adjustment. In terms of the risks of this habit, well…it’s difficult to quantify.
There have been relatively few clinical studies on the topic. Some analysis has been done in various people who habitually crack their knuckles. The aim has been to find out whether they’re at increased risk of developing arthritis or osteoarthritis.
One study concluded that the fingers showed some signs of damage. Soft tissue injuries hindered the subjects’ ability to grip an object. It’s thought that the quick and repetitive stretching and contracting of the joint ligaments are what caused this.
There’s no denying the sense of satisfaction you get when you pop your knuckles. Mobility is improved (at least, temporarily) and the action seems to relax the joints. Of course, this is why it can become so addictive. Some self-medicate. Others – especially those whose joint pain manifests itself in larger areas – should seek chiropractic help.
Since chiropractors have been trained to rearrange the bones, this is a safer option. People who regularly receive chiropractic work report that they feel suppler and suffer a lot less pain in the joints and muscles.
Are you wasting away?
Muscle wastage: it’s what some research claims is the primary consequence of your knuckle popping habit. It seems, however, that this is more a danger if you’re not particularly physically active. If your muscles and joints are only being stretched when you’re cracking them, they atrophy.
The lack of movement weakens your muscles and they feel worn out. This becomes a vicious cycle. A person turns to this method of stretching the muscles more and more often throughout the day. Strength is gradually lost.
For others, this way of soothing the pain of contractions becomes an ever more frequent habit. It’s a motion that is abrupt and unnatural for the joints, though. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t actually alleviate muscle tension.
What it does is cause the loss of synovial fluid. When that happens, friction occurs between the bones. This increases the odds of fractures and breaks. Stiffness, deformed joints and sharp pains can also appear in response to a lack of synovial fluid.
Adults over the age of 40 are more prone to these maladies – and the hands and neck are the biggest victims of this questionable habit. Want to avoid this problem as best you can? Exercise is key. Walking and swimming are both low impact, so they’re highly recommended.
Weight-bearing activities that promote muscle strength and flexibility will increased your endurance and your bone mask. They’ll do it without straining your joints. Sadly, there’s evidence that, after the magical age of 30, joints lose elasticity.
You’ll want to make a concerted effort to become more physically active. Every little helps, so stop slumping in front of the telly and the computer!
Is arthritis knocking on your door?
You’re not alone if you’re still wondering about a possible link between knuckle popping and arthritis. As was touched upon earlier in this article, it’s too true that a prolonged habit of this sort can certainly damage your cartilage.
Dr Donald Unger became his own case study. Twice a day for over 60 years, he cracked the knuckles of the fingers on his left hand. His right hand was the control. Each year, the venerable doctor examined his hands. Never once did he find evidence that popping his joints led to degenerative disease.
Yet another study took place in a Los Angeles nursing home. Of its 30 elderly test subjects – all of whom had been lifelong knuckle crackers – none showed signs of osteoarthritis.
Finally, in Detroit, a third study was conducted on a group of 45 year old people. It concluded that weakened grip was the main result of their habit. Also, over 80% of the participants suffered swelling in their hands.
What’s the lesson, then? We’d advise you to be aware. Pay attention to how often you turn to popping your joints. If you’re doing it mindlessly, there’s a good chance that it may be causing damage.
Try to be mindful. The occasional knuckle cracking indulgence won’t do you much harm. In fact, it can be a boon for your anxiety levels. Just don’t do it constantly.
As ever, if your habit is a response to nervousness or chronic pain, please book an appointment with your GP. He or she can rule out any serious conditions. Err on the side of caution and don’t play with your health.