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Cracking Your Knuckles: Harm, Help or Neither?

By Krista Elliott

It's almost become a cliche: Someone is getting ready to get down to some serious work (or a serious fistfight), and they crack their knuckles in preparation. Cracking your knuckles does feel satisfying (disclosure: I crack my knuckles habitually, much to my mother's chagrin), but is it helpful, harmful, or neither? 

What Causes My Knuckles to Crack?

A common theory behind knuckle-cracking is that the cracking or popping sound is caused by built-up nitrogen gas escaping the joint when it is manipulated. Researchers recently used MRI imaging to determine exactly what happens when knuckles are cracked, and found that it is caused by changes in pressure in the fluid surrounding our joints. 

Is it Similar to Chiropractic Care?

Not really. Knuckle (or toe, or neck) cracking done by yourself is a very generalized movement that simply creates a popping sound and a feeling of released pressure. It feels good, but other than the benefit of grossing out your mom, there are no specific benefits. 

When having a chiropractic adjustment, such as from the professionals at The Joint Chiropractic, very specific motions and pressures are applied in order to manipulate the joint into its ideal alignment. Yes, your joints may "crack" during an adjustment, as they align into the proper position. However, that is simply a side effect of treatment, and provides no benefit in and of itself.

Will Cracking My Knuckles Cause Arthritis?

This is a common assumption, but one that has been disproven. From interviews done with nursing home residents to the memorable case of a researcher who cracked the knuckles of only one of his hands for a 60-year period, there is no proven link between cracking your knuckles and an increased incidence of arthritis. 

That being said, there are some precautions to keep in mind. If you experience pain when cracking your knuckles, stop, give them a rest, and see your healthcare practitioner if the pain continues. If you're trying to crack a knuckle and it won't cooperate, don't force it. Just give it a rest for a half-hour or so before trying again, to avoid too much strain on the joints. And if you're a neck-cracker, keep your motions gentle, and never ask a friend to help you crack your neck. Lastly, if you're experiencing frequent cracking and pain in weight-bearing joints like your hips or knees, please see your healthcare practitioner right away, as these could be signs of degenerative damage like osteoarthritis or a tear in the meniscus. Your chiropractic expert at The Joint can answer your questions and help assess any creaking and cracking that your joints are experiencing. 

So, feel free to crack your knuckles and get down to work, guilt-free! 

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