What is joint cracking, is it bad for you, can it cause arthritis? All your joint clicking, popping and cracking questions answered below!
Not up for a long read? Check out this joint cracking video by Dr Abbey Davidson (Osteopath) from our Sydney CBD location:
What is Joint cracking?
When a joint is bended or separated there can be an audible popping, clicking or cracking sound. This sound is created when pressure is released from within a synovial joint as carbon dioxide cavitation bubbles “pop”. This is often accompanied by the feeling of relaxation or satisfaction. Joint cracking is also referred to as joint manipulation, adjustments, mobilizations or HVLA.
The common misconception is that the clicking, popping or cracking sound comes from bones grinding or banging against one another. This is not true! Within a synovial or moving joint there is a thick egg-white like liquid called synovial fluid. This fluid lubricates joint surfaces and decreases friction. Within this fluid are various kinds of dissolved gas molecules such as carbon dioxide. By stretching the joint or separating the joint surfaces you create a decrease of pressure within the joint. This pressure change pulls what were dissolved gases out of the synovial fluid into bubbles which pops. The popping of the bubbles is the audible sound made when you crack joints such as your knuckles.
Because a “joint crack” is created by gases within the joints synovial fluid it takes roughly 20 minutes for replenishment. This means that you cannot repetitive crack a joint over and over. The sensations of multiple clicks, cracks or pops is generally due to a tendon flicking over a boney protuberance.
Can Joint cracking cause arthritis?
No long term medical research has been able to show a link between cracking your joints and arthritis.
There is a very famous slightly unorthodox study to disprove the wives’ tale about the relationship between joint cracking and arthritis. Dr. Donald Unger cracked joints on just one of his hands for 60 years. After this time imaging of his hands showed absolutely no difference between the cracked hand and the non-cracked hand.
Why do chiropractors/osteopaths/physiotherapists crack joints?
A health professional will sometimes use “joint cracking” or joint manipulation as a therapeutic tool to help with various aches and pains. Popping a joint causes a temporary enlargement or separation of joint surfaces (increases size of joint cavity by 15%). This disengagement aims to decrease any restriction or poor positioning of the joint. This will also provide a sensation of relaxation which can be beneficial when a client is experiencing pain and tightness.
Benefits of Joint Manipulation:
Generally joint manipulation provides the following benefits:
- Reduction in pain
- Increased range of motion or flexibility
- Return to physical activity
- Decreased intake of pain medication
- Decreased participation in surgical intervention
The benefits you receive from joint manipulation will vary between person to person. It will depend on the specific region, other medical conditions present, general health, age, re-aggravation, how long the symptoms have been present and your specific circumstances.
Is it bad to crack yourself?
While it is tempting to crack yourself it is not recommended.
Osteopaths, Chiropractors and Physiotherapists spend many years at university learning the specific signs for when it is indicated or when not safe to manipulate someone. They are also well practiced and rehearsed at joint manipulation. When they perform a joint manipulation (or “crack”) they target the specific joint they want to manipulate and get moving. Often when you “crack” yourself you are moving a joint which is not restricted; leaving the restricted joint just above or below “un-cracked”. This is why the sensation of relief from getting the “crack” yourself doesn’t quite resolve feelings of discomfort. See a health professional to have the area assessed and to have the underlying problem addressed.
What is HVLA?
When you come to see an osteopath or physiotherapists the specific “cracking” technique they use is called HVLA or High Velocity Low Amplitude. This means that techniques apply a low amount of force to the joint in a speedy way to achieve a “popping sound”. HVLA is used on synovial joints all over the body most commonly to the spinal joints.
Is it having your joints cracked dangerous? Is spinal manipulation safe?
Like with any treatment there are possible risks.
Physiotherapists, Osteopaths and Chiropractors are highly trained health professional and spend a considerable amount of time at university learning to identify risk factors associated with joint manipulation. They continually to develop and practice their technique to be able to provide direct and specific manipulation.
If you have concerns about joint manipulation you are welcome to talk to your practitioner about the specific benefits and risks of the technique to you and your specific set of circumstances (region of the body, co-existing medical conditions, age, etc.). They should be able to answer all your questions/concerns, provide you with appropriate information/sources and discuss alternate therapies available. A manipulation technique will never be performed without your consent and a practitioner will always ask you prior to the technique be performed.
By Sydney CBD Osteopath Dr Abbey Davidson