News on Knuckle Popping

As a middle school student, I remember being told that cracking your knuckles would give you arthritis. At that time, I had no idea that there were millions of Americans with rheumatoid arthritis, much less that within a decade I would become one of them, so I didn’t understand that young people can get arthritis. The possibility of developing arthritis seemed a far distant worry. Yet, even though I still held the common misconception that arthritis only afflicts the elderly, I refrained from popping my knuckles after being told that it would give me arthritis. Whenever my friends cracked their knuckles, I worried that they were damaging their bones. Ironically, 25 years later my childhood friends’ joints are doing great, and I am the one with arthritis.

Also ironic is that my RA has caused me to become a knuckle-cracker; I thought popping knuckles would give me arthritis, but instead my arthritis has given me knuckle popping. When I say knuckle, I really mean joint, as the parts of my body that I pop most often are my knees. I frequently get a sudden sensation of stiffness and discomfort, and sometimes intense pain, in my knees that will not subside until I pop them. I may have to bend and extend my leg four or five times until I achieve the satisfying pop, but when it comes it relieves the sudden onset of pain and restores range of motion instantly. This is also the case with my knuckles, especially in my thumbs, as well as my wrists, ankles and toes. Since developing arthritis, cracking my knuckles has been a source of relief, even though that contradicts what I’d always been told about knuckle popping.

A recent research study supports my own anecdotal findings. Dr. Greg Kawchuck, a professor of rehabilitation medicine, was able to counter common beliefs about knuckle popping through real-time MRIs of joints being cracked. For years the leading theory on the cause of the popping sound has been that air bubbles form in knuckles, and cracking them pops these bubbles and makes the sound we are all so familiar with. However, Dr. Kawchuck and his team discovered that theory to be false. Via MRI technology, they were able to watch what is actually happening inside the finger when a knuckle is popped. It turns out that the sound is emitted not when an air bubble bursts, but rather when an air bubble forms. Before the air bubble forms, the air is mixed throughout the synovial fluid, so when it separates out from the fluid it causes a reduction of pressure (and the popping sound). This build up and release of pressure explains why my joints can suddenly become so stiff and why I can find relief simply by popping them: there’s a drop in synovial fluid pressure each time the air separates out and forms a bubble.

Furthermore, Dr. Kevin deWeber, who practices and studies sports medicine, has researched the impact of knuckle popping on osteoarthritis and has found that it does not increase the likelihood of arthritis. In an NPR article regarding Dr. Kawchuck’s MRI findings, Dr. deWeber said that rather than being harmful to joints, the formation of air bubbles via knuckle popping may actually be helpful.

I don’t have a choice about whether to pop my joints, as there are times when they won’t move properly until I do. Therefore, it is very reassuring to know that not only did my childhood experimentation with knuckle popping have nothing to do with my development of arthritis, but that scientists have determined the scientific reason why it relieves the pressure I feel in my joints. This not only gives me peace of mind as far as my knuckles go, but also gives me a sense of encouragement. Every time scientists figure out another piece of the puzzle, no matter how small that piece may be, I have renewed hope that researchers will one day figure out the big picture of my dreams: a cure for RA.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
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