Does Knuckle-Cracking Cause Arthritis? Myths And Facts
A Popping & Snapping Debate
Whether it’s something you find yourself doing every now and then, or it’s fingernails on the chalkboard for you, knuckle-cracking is a habit that provokes reactions. For as many people revolted by it and feel it leads to arthritis, there are as many that are junkies for those cracks and pops. Fueling the debate is a long held belief that knuckle cracking causes arthritis. Does the habit of cracking your knuckles actually do bring arthritis later on? To figure out the answers to knuckle-cracking, arthritis, and other questions, we’ll need to take a closer look at what’s actually happens when you crack your knuckles, why people do it, and what risks for arthritis, if any, there are. Let’s get cracking!
So how does knuckle cracking work? For a long time, it was believed the sound and sensation of knuckle cracks were the results of bubbles bursting in the synovial fluid. This fluid is what lubricates the joints in the hand and wrist.  When the joints are pulled apart either through stretching or by pulling fingers back, the knuckles create that satisfying (or annoying) sound.
However, more recent studies have noted that what’s actually happening is the reverse; the sounds are bubbles forming in the synovial fluid, not bursting them.. 
After cracking, there is a “refractory period,” during which the space between the joints refills with fluid. During this time, the knuckle-cracker will have to wait before they’re able to do it again.
Knuckle Cracking & Arthritis
Whether you think cracking knuckles is annoying or a form of stress relief, the big question of whether this habit leads to arthritis seems to not be true. Based on a number of long-term studies comparing those people that crack their knuckles, and those that don’t, the evidence suggests this habit does not increase the risk of forming arthritis.  These results have been replicated a number of times. So if your partner, parent, or child is on your back about your knuckle-cracking habit, you can tell them it’s OK. Of course, the question of whether this habit is rude or not is another one altogether!
Are There Other Dangers?
So now that the hypothesis that knuckle-cracking doesn’t cause arthritis, a related question is this: Is it something you should be doing? Are there other dangers? According to Dr. Dimitrius Pappas, M.D., a Rheumatology Fellow at John Hopkins University, “a couple of reports in…medical literature are available associating knuckle cracking with injury of the ligaments surrounding the joint or dislocation of the tendons.”  Furthermore, he notes that habitual cracking over the long term can lead to reduced grip strength later in life. Additionally, a person with arthritis has a chance to injure surrounding ligaments if they crack their knuckles.
Why Do People Do It?
Those that don’t habitually crack their knuckles might also wonder why people engage in this behavior in the first place. Experts in the field note two dimensions to the habit: psychological and physiological.  Psychologically, this behavior is similar to other nervous habits like fingernail chewing or tapping on surfaces: it’s something in certain situations people do compulsively. Physiologically, people are attracted to knuckle cracking because the act of creating that space in the joint can be relieving. It does spur fluid movement to the area and can lead to fingers feeling less constrained.
Healthy Joints & A Helping Hand
Regardless of whether you crack your knuckles or are repulsed by this behavior, the important thing is to ensure your joints are healthy and that you’re living pain-free. The fact of the matter is that conditions like arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or discomfort in the wrist and hands due to injury can be seriously debilitating. Whatever the origin, the most important thing is to find effective relief, and this is where the right team of medical professionals can make all the difference in the world. It’s all in your hands.
To learn about innovative and effective approaches to a whole range of orthopedic problems, contact a Patient Care Manager at Onward Orthopedics. These experts will help guide you through the process of finding true relief. Call them anytime at (800) 577-1693.
- Publications, Harvard. 2017. “Does Knuckle Cracking Cause Arthritis? – Harvard Health”. Harvard Health. Accessed March 9 2017. http://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/does-knuckle-cracking-cause-arthritis.
- Barnes, Z. (2017). 4 Things You Should Know About Cracking Your Knuckles. [online] Women’s Health. Available at: http://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/everything-you-need-to-know-about-cracking-your-knuckles [Accessed 9 Mar. 2017].
- Center, Arthritis. 2007. “Arthritis News : Knuckle Cracking Q&A From Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center”. Arthritis Information. Accessed March 9 2017. https://www.hopkinsarthritis.org/arthritis-news/knuckle-cracking-q-a-from/.