Many people are against cracking your knuckles because they claim that it causes arthritis. But what does science say? Does cracking your knuckles give arthritis, or is this a misconception?
The urban myth is still spread all over the world, even though most people don’t really know if the habit is genuinely unhealthy or not. The short answer is that cracking your knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis, but it can cause some other issues you should know about.
How Do Knuckle Joints Work and Why Can You Crack Them?
Joints connect the ends of two bones. The ends of the bones are covered with articular cartilage that is then surrounded by a joint capsule. The capsule is filled with a synovial fluid which lubricates the joints and provides nutrients for the cells that are in charge of maintaining the joint cartilage.
The synovial fluid found in the joints contains oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen gases that are formed by the cells in the fluid. The cracking sound you hear when cracking your knuckles is partly caused by a release of those gases. They make a sound as they escape the synovial fluid into the cavities that form in the joints. As you crack your knuckles, the joint capsule expands, dropping the pressure inside enough for the gas to escape out of the fluid.
This process shouldn’t be painful, and it happens often. In fact, we know that there are three ways you can crack your knuckles:
- Bending your fingers backward or forwards
- Pulling the bones in the joint apart
- Turning your fingers sideways
But what are the risks? Does cracking your knuckles give arthritis?
A few different groups of scientists have tried to find out if there is a relation between knuckle cracking and arthritis.
One elaborate study used magnetic resonance imaging or MRI to see what exactly happens when you crack your joints. The researchers here concluded that the sound is related to cavity formation and not just the release of the gases.
They used the MRI to take real-time images (at 3.2 frames per second), as 10 volunteers cracked their joints in a special flexible tube that applied traction to the joints. They could see that cavities form due to joint separation, which is what causes the sounds.
The studies concluded that gas bubbles do contribute to the cracking sound, but the sound can also occur without any gas bubbles in the joints.
But the research also found that there’s no relation between cracking knuckles and arthritis. Let’s look at some more results.
A Direct Approach to Research
Dr. Donald Unger did extensive research on the topic because of the warnings he got from his family whenever he cracked his knuckles.
He wanted to prove that there’s nothing to be afraid of, so he cracked the knuckles on his left hand at least two times a day for 50 years, and left his right hand untouched. Since there was no difference between his left hand and right hand, he concluded that cracking joints doesn’t cause arthritis.
Another study was performed by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences on 215 people. 20% of those people cracked their knuckles regularly. It turned out that 18% of the participants who cracked their knuckles got arthritis, while 21.5% of the people that didn’t crack their knuckles also got arthritis.
That means that you have almost the same chances of getting arthritis, no matter if you crack your knuckles or not. However, cracking knuckles can cause some other medical problems you should keep in mind.
Other Medical Concerns
Even though you don’t have to worry about arthritis if you crack your joints all the time, you should know that the habit can contribute to inflammation and a weaker grip in the hands.
A study done in 1990 included 300 people, all of them over the age of 45. The group was divided into 74 people that crack their knuckles and 226 that don’t. Again, the conclusion was that the chances of developing arthritis are the same for both groups.
However, the group that cracked their knuckles had a higher rate of inflammation and a weaker grip with their hands. So, the cracking does impact your joints and contributes to swelling, soft tissue damage, and weakened muscles.
Why Do People Do It?
Cracking your joints stimulates something called the Golgi tendon organ. The motion relaxes the muscles, giving you a feeling of increased mobility. It’s a normal sensation we all experience, but doing it often can cause issues in the long run.
There is no treatment for cracking joints, and it is usually nothing to worry about. Some doctors even joked that cracking joints causes more problems for those who hear the sound than to the person who is doing the cracking. There’s nothing you can do to stop your knuckles and joints from cracking other than not do it intentionally.
Is There a Way to Minimize Knuckle Cracking?
Cracking knuckles and joints happens naturally, but it happens more to people with excess weight. That’s because they have more pressure on the joints.
You probably already know that you have to exercise to keep your joints in ideal working order. Low-impact exercise will keep your joints flexible, and your muscles will become stronger, keeping the joints in place, and reducing the likelihood of them popping and cracking all the time.
To Crack or Not to Crack, That Is the Question
You can stop asking the question “Does cracking your knuckles give arthritis?” – quite simply, it doesn’t. Your chances of developing arthritis will not be impacted by this habit.
With that said, you could experience other problems, including a weaker grip in your hands, swelling, and inflammation. So, it’s not a good idea to crack your knuckles deliberately.
The best thing you can do to make sure that your joints and knuckles are healthy is to work out regularly. Strengthening your muscles will keep your joins in place, so you’ll reduce the chances of them cracking.