Cracking and popping joints, medically known as crepitus, are normal. Joints are points in your body where two bones meet. You might occasionally hear your knees popping or notice your back or bones crack as you move them.

Joints that crack and pop are not typically a sign you need to see a healthcare provider. You’ll want to see a healthcare provider, in contrast, if you have pain or swelling with crepitus. Read on to learn why your joints crack or pop and how to treat them.

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The sounds you hear coming from your joints can be described differently. The following are terms you might use:

  • Clicking: A quiet noise occurring with a flexed-then-extended knee, for example
  • Clunking: A single, loud sound following a joint’s release of resistance
  • Cracking: A sound that repeats after some time during continuous movement
  • Grinding or grating: A noise that sounds like persistent scratching
  • Popping: An explosive sound that’s sudden

It’s possible to experience cracking joints at any time. You might notice joint noises for various reasons. Possible causes include escaping gases between joints and movement between ligaments or tendons.

Gas Escaping

Cracking and popping noises are sometimes just gas bubbles bursting within the fluid that surrounds the joint. This fluid, or synovial fluid, is full of gases like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. These gases are released if you crack your knuckles, for example, and bubbles form.

Joint Contact

Cartilage acts as a cushion between the bony surfaces of your joints. Joints may make noise as the cartilage wears away and bones rub against one another.

Ligament and Tendon Movement

You might hear the sound of your ligaments and tendons stretching and releasing. You can hear a crack or pop as joints go back to their original place after shifting slightly.

Tight Tendons and Joints

You may have tight muscles or tendons if you hear these sounds more often when you repeatedly move the joint. The soft snapping or clicking sound may be the sound of tight muscles or tendons moving over a bony structure if you are doing exercises at the gym.

You might have cracking or popping, painful joints for a few reasons. Possible causes include:

  • Bursitis: The bursa, or the padding between the bones of your joints, swells with fluid, which can cause joint popping.
  • Meniscus or ligament injuries: Injuries to the cartilage (meniscus) between your shin and thigh bones or connective tissues (ligaments) between bones may lead to cracking joints.
  • Meniscus root tears: Tears in the meniscus can result in popping joints.
  • Osteoarthritis (OA): This type of arthritis can cause decreased cartilage and painful, swollen joints.
  • Plica syndrome: This disorder results in front-of-knee pain due to inflamed plica, or the tissue within the knee.

Cracking your knuckles and other joints does not cause arthritis. There’s no research to provide evidence for this connection. You’ll still want to limit how much you crack your knuckles. Research has shown it’s possible to lose grip strength and experience swollen hands.

Moving is one of the best ways to prevent joints from making noise or becoming damaged. Regular exercise helps keep your muscles strong, which also supports your joints. Several types of exercise can help with types of arthritis, especially knee OA.

These exercises include:

  • Aerobic exercise
  • Aquatic exercise
  • Balance training
  • Neuromuscular exercise, which may include core and plyometric exercises to improve balance and joint stability
  • Proprioception training, which includes balance exercises
  • Strength training

Gently stretching the affected joint and the surrounding muscles can reduce cracking and popping. Try minimizing any joint-related injuries if possible. This means ensuring you wear the proper gear to protect your joints, especially if you play sports.

Medical Treatments

Some medical treatments can reduce cracking and popping. Treatments depend on what’s causing the noises. Physical therapy and bracing, for example, can be helpful for people with OA. Surgery might be the more appropriate choice for Plica syndrome or for meniscus tears that do not resolve with nonsurgical treatments.

Joint sounds are not generally a cause for concern. The need to seek medical attention changes if you have other symptoms with joint noises.

It’s best to see a healthcare provider any time you have pain, swelling, or potential fluid build-up that occurs with popping or cracking joints. They can help you figure out the cause if you are unsure why the pain and cracking are happening.

Joint cracking and popping are generally harmless. Sports injuries, OA, and overuse injuries may cause cracks and pops. Consult a healthcare provider if pain, swelling, or stiffness accompany these noises. They can advise treatments to help reduce joint noises, from home remedies to medical options like physical therapy.