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What Causes Popping Joints and What To Do About It?

It is quite common for anyone to hear a pop of the joint every now and then. A Popping Joint is defined as a sound of a pop with movement of a joint especially of the hands or knees. Experts in the yesteryears believed that the popping sound came due to an air bubble coming in between bones of the joints and others were of the opinion that the sound was produced due to recoil of muscle ligaments.[1,2]

In medical terms, Joint Popping is defined as crepitus. This sound is quite annoying and more of a nuisance. It is not necessary that only the elderly have popping joints. Even younger people with healthy joints can have audible popping joints at some time or the other.[1,2]

A study conducted in 2017 showed that Popping Joints was responsible for some people having negative thoughts or emotions and even prohibit people from carrying out activities that they otherwise may enjoy doing. There can be a variety of causes as to why joints pop. It can vary from just fluid or gas in between joints to rubbing of bones due to lack of proper cartilage protection.[1,2]

Popping Joints are rarely painful but they can be quite discomforting especially when it becomes more pronounced and frequent. There is also a misconception that popping joints cause arthritis. While it may be an early warning sign of arthritis, Popping Joints is not the cause of it or in fact any serious medical condition. However, in some cases physician intervention may be required to know the cause of it.[1,2]

Popping can occur in any joint but is more common in the knees and ankles. Flexion and rotation of the ankles is the most common activity that triggers popping. Moving the neck and opening closing the hands, and flexion and rotation of the wrists are also common activities that cause Popping Joints. This article highlights some of the common causes and ways to manage it.[1,2]

What Causes Popping Joints?

Some of the potential causes of Popping Joints include:

Nitrogen Bubbles: The joints of the body are protected by synovial fluid that acts like a lubricant. This fluid protects the joints from getting the joints from getting degenerated by constant rubbing. The one of the components of this synovial fluid is nitrogen. Sometimes nitrogen bubbles can form in the joints. When these bubbles try and escape is when a person hears a popping sound.[1]

The process of the escape of nitrogen bubbles from the joints is called as cavitation. It can be best explained by the activity where a person cracks the knuckles. This forces the nitrogen bubbles to move out thus making the sound. The nitrogen bubbles usually escape out from the fluid while walking, exercising, or getting up from sitting position.[1]

Ligament Movements: Constant movement of ligaments are also one of the causes of popping joints. Ligaments are made up of fibrous tissues that connect one bone to another. Sometimes, the ligaments become tight and tend to pop with any sudden movement or when the joint is rotated at an unusual angle. This type of popping may be painful at times.[1]

Manipulation: Therapeutic procedures like chiropractic treatments at times also cause popping Joints. This happens when the tight joints are released during the treatment. Thus it is recommended to do such treatments only under the supervision of a trained professional.[1]

The Popping is more pronounced in people with a condition called osteoarthritis where there is degeneration of the joint surfaces. This makes the surfaces very rough due to cartilage loss. The frequency of the popping is also more in people with osteoarthritis than others.[1]

Tendon Snap: Tendons connect muscles to bones. Whenever a tendon snaps a popping sound is heard. This is seen most commonly in people with a condition called snapping hip syndrome. This usually happens due to overuse and the muscles getting inflamed.[1]

Surgical Procedure: Popping joints is also quite common in people who have had surgery around a joint. Popping due to a surgical procedure usually goes away once the wound heals and the person begins physical therapy to regain strength and range of motion.[1]

Torn Ligaments: This is yet another cause of Popping Joints. Whenever a ligament ruptures, it creates a popping sound, especially if the ligaments belong to the joints of the upper or lower extremities. A torn ligament will also cause pain and swelling around the joints.[1]

What Can Be Done About Popping Joints?

Now that we know about what are the potential causes of Popping Joints, it is also important to know ways to manage it. There is no specific treatment as such to treat Popping Joints and in fact physicians do not feel the need to do anything for it. However, if the popping joints are caused by degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis, then treatment for it will be required which will also be effective in managing popping sounds.[1]

Unless, popping joints are accompanied by other symptoms like pain and swelling, there is nothing too concerning about this condition. However, if the popping sounds hear more like a cracking noise then it may indicate presence of a medical condition like gout or joint dislocation that will necessitate treatment. If Popping Joints are not associated with any pain or swelling then there is nothing to worry about as it is quite common and almost everyone has it at one time or the other.[1]


Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 3, 2021

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