Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Real Effects of Knuckle Cracking

Does knuckle cracking cause arthritis? Probably not.
Does knuckle cracking cause arthritis? Probably not.
Image: Shutterstock
I don’t remember when I first started cracking my knuckles, but it was a long time ago. I would guess I was probably about ten or eleven years old at the time. I’ve done so on and off since then, oscillating between periods where I just didn’t care and periods where I was trying to stop my bad habit out of fear of arthritis.

I’ve always wondered—but never bothered to check—what the real effects of cracking my knuckles are. Despite whether it causes arthritis or not, there’s no denying that it’s a habit that is hard to break. And it’s not exactly and appealing habit to have—the loud pops can be annoying to others, and I always seem to have the biggest urge to crack my knuckles when a room is dead silent.

It turns out, there’s no actual scientific evidence thus far that confirms that knuckle cracking causes arthritis. When two or more bones meet, they are connected by ligaments, which are encapsulated by a joint capsule. This capsule is filled with synovial fluid to help joints move smoothly. The popping or cracking sound happens when we stretch and pull apart the joint capsule, thereby expanding it, decreasing pressure inside of it, and releasing dissolved gasses within it (nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide).

Arthritis is caused by cartilage damage, and therefore it’s unlikely that knuckle cracking could cause arthritic problems later on in life. Knuckle cracking stretches our joints and stimulates nerve ending there, which is why it can feel so good to us. Unfortunately, that constant stretching can also make the joint unstable—a development that could lead to lower grip strength and potential loss of hand function.

So, while arthritis might not be of particular concern, joint problems may be. For me, I’ll probably aim for moderation and muscle strengthening. My joints often crack on their own, and when I do it on purpose, it’s usually because my muscles around the joint feel like they’re too tight or uncomfortable. But I also find that the more I build up muscle strength and flexibility, the less I feel the need to crack my knuckles and other joints.

My plan is to limit how much I actively crack my joints, but still allow myself some leeway when necessary. Overall, it’s probably best for my body (and less annoying for the people around me) if I eventually break the habit completely, but if I’m being realistic, that probably won’t be for a while.