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Snap, Crackle & Pop: Do Noisy Joints Signal a Problem?

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When you get out of bed in the morning, do you notice your ankles cracking as you walk across the floor? Or maybe your knees have begun popping when you climb the stairs. Noisy joints can be a little alarming, especially if a new sound starts.

“Joints can make a lot of noise but unless you have pain there usually isn’t any cause for concern,” said Lauren Hansen, MD, from Samaritan Mid-Valley Orthopedics in Albany. “We all get a little creakier as we age.”

What Makes the Noise?

A natural condition called crepitus may be causing some of the noises you hear. As people age the cartilage that cushions the joints and promotes smooth movement naturally wears down. The surfaces become a little rougher and make noise when they rub against each other, says Dr. Hansen.

The tough, stringy tendon tissue that connects muscles to the bones can also contribute to a clicking or popping sensation you hear or feel. As a joint rotates, tendons can flick across the bone and create a slight twang, similar to a guitar string being plucked. Dr. Hansen reports this sound is common in the shoulders where there is a wide range of movement. If the sensation becomes bothersome during repetitive activities like working out, shifting your position a little will usually resolve it.

Joints can make a cracking noise when the fluid inside is forcibly separated. You may notice it when you crank your head around to look behind you in the car or when you crack your knuckles.

Is It Harmful?

Chronic knuckle crackers needn’t worry; according to Dr. Hansen the habit won’t cause arthritis or long-term damage. Other noises are also usually no cause for concern.

“I get questions about joint noises regularly, but it’s really quite normal,” said Dr. Hansen.

When to Seek Help

If ongoing joint noise is accompanied by pain, stiffness, swelling or heat, make an appointment with your primary care provider. It may be a sign of osteoarthritis.

If you hear a loud snap or popping noise and immediate sharp pain, stop your activity and ice the injury site. If pain doesn’t improve within 24 hours, book a rapid-access appointment at Samaritan Athletic Medicine for evaluation.

Keep Joints in Shape

Dr. Hansen recommends daily activity to keep joints working well.

“The joints contain lubricating fluid but need movement to loosen up and spread around,” said Dr. Hansen. “Stretching and large-movement exercises are really good for you; your joints were made to move.”

Learn more about your joints and orthopedic issues from our health library.

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