The Relationship Between Cracking Knuckles and Arthritis
You may crack your knuckles to relieve tension because you are nervous, or just out of habit. Chances are, if you crack your knuckles, you have heard that you should not because you may develop arthritis. So, does cracking your knuckles cause arthritis? While the sound of cracking knuckles may be bothersome to those around you, research suggests that it is not harmful or beneficial, and more importantly, it does not cause arthritis.
Cracking Knuckles and Arthritis
There is currently no evidence that shows that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis. A California doctor performed an experiment on himself whereby he regularly cracked his knuckles on only one of his hands throughout his life. After decades of cracking, he evaluated x-rays of his hands and found no difference between his hands. This research was supported by a larger study that looked at a geriatric population with a known history of knuckle-cracking. The researchers found no correlation between knuckle-cracking and degenerative changes associated with arthritis.
The joints of your fingers, your knuckles, are covered by a capsule that contains synovial fluid. This synovial fluid acts as a lubricant and contains nutrients that help to support the surrounding bony surfaces. While the exact mechanism behind the “cracking” or “popping” sound that happens when cracking your knuckles is not completely understood, it may be due to the negative pressure that pulls nitrogen gas into the joint space temporarily while the joint is moved apart by either stretching the fingers, or bending them backwards, creating a bubble that bursts, creating the “cracking” or “popping” sound. Knuckles cannot be re-cracked immediately because it takes a while for the gases to be re-dissolved in the synovial fluid.
Why Do People Crack Their Knuckles?
Research has found that up to 54% of people crack their knuckles, and some people are habitual knuckle-crackers, cracking their knuckles more than five times per day. It has been found that people crack their knuckles for various reasons, including:
- They like the sound of the cracking or popping noise.
- They like the way it feels; some say it relieves tension and increases joint movement.
- They are nervous and cracking knuckles gives them something to do with their hands.
- They are stressed and cracking knuckles provides an outlet for releasing their stress.
- They have developed a bad habit and do not even think about it.
Should People With Arthritis Avoid Cracking Their Knuckles?
While there is no evidence that supports the idea that cracking knuckles causes or worsens arthritis, chronic intentional knuckle cracking may lead to decreased grip strength. Additionally, there have been reports of painful and swollen joints, joint dislocation, tendon and ligament injuries, as well as soft tissue damage with knuckle cracking. Therefore, if you suffer with arthritis you may want to consider avoiding cracking your knuckles.
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Breaking the Habit
Even though cracking your knuckles does not cause or worsen arthritis, you may want to break this habit. Here are some tips to kick the habit:
- Determine why you crack your knuckles (i.e. stress, anxiety, etc.) and address the underlying issue.
- Engage in another activity to relieve your stress (i.e. exercise, deep breathing, guided meditation, etc.).
- Keep your hands busy (i.e. use a fidget spinner, stress ball, etc.).
- Perform hand, wrist and forearm stretches throughout the day to help curb the need to release tension.
- Pay attention to your behavior and consciously stop cracking your knuckles.
- Write down when you find yourself cracking your knuckles; not only will this keep your hands busy, but it may help you identify triggers for your knuckle cracking. Once you have identified your triggers, you can address them to help curb your desire to crack your knuckles.
Keep in mind that once you are a habitual knuckle-cracker it may be hard to stop the habit, but it can be done. While knuckle-cracking has not been shown to cause arthritis, it can lead to tendon, ligament and joint damage over time. Learning different strategies to break your knuckle cracking habit can help to protect your hands from damage in the future.
While no link has been found between cracking your knuckles and developing arthritis, you should still be mindful of this habit. As a general rule, knuckle-cracking that is not accompanied by pain is not harmful. However, repetitive intentional cracking of your knuckles may be bothersome to those around you, and when it is accompanied by pain, it may mean that there is an underlying physical abnormality of the joint, such as loose cartilage or injured ligaments, that needs to be addressed.