Whether you habitually “crack” your knuckles or your right knee “pops” every now and then, chances are you’re at least familiar with the sensation of a joint making a ridiculous sound, and then feeling a sweet, instant release of pressure. But what’s actually happening in the body when you crack a joint?
First, think about how joints typically move. When you crack one of them, you’re essentially extending the joint beyond its normal range of motion, as SELF previously reported. When this happens, experts believe the gasses inside the fluid that lubricates the joint escape via small bubbles that burst, causing that signature cracking or popping sound.
This isn’t the only thing that can produce sounds in your body, though. “Tendons or ligaments gliding over bony surfaces can reproduce a similar type of sound,” Elizabeth Nguyen, MD, a physiatrist board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, tells SELF. People who have arthritis may also hear noises sometimes due to bone-on-bone friction, she adds.
Questions about whether joint popping is good or bad for you have prevailed for years. If you constantly crack your fingers, you’ve probably had someone tell you the habit can cause arthritis—a claim that has been proven false, Dr. Nguyen says. Still, it’s easy to wonder if cracking your joints over and over and over again is harmful in any way—especially if you consistently feel the need to release the sensation of pressure in your knuckles, knees, neck, back, or anywhere really.
Below, experts break down why all of this feels so dang good—and whether a cycle of cracking your joints is really something to be concerned about.
Why does cracking a joint feel so good?
Popping or cracking a joint can help relieve tension that builds up due to lack of movement, Drew Schwartz, DC, a chiropractic physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. “Your body loves movement,” he explains. “The more it can move, the better it feels.” A muscle imbalance—which occurs when one set of muscles becomes weaker than its opposing side of muscles—could also factor into this tension build-up.
“The pop feels good because [the joint] gets movement there, but the tension will come back after the pop. It only feels good for a second,” Schwartz explains, adding, “It can be habit forming because there is some satisfaction to it.”
Of course, cracking your joints isn’t a long-term solution if any area of your body is consistently feeling stiff, Schwartz cautions, and it shouldn’t be done if you’re feeling legit pain. Ultimately, if you feel regular pressure, tightness, or pain in a certain area of your body, you may need to be evaluated by a medical professional, Dr. Nguyen says, especially if it starts to interfere with your daily life. “In those situations, there may be an underlying issue,” she adds.
So… should I stop cracking my joints?
Once you’re in the routine of cracking your joints, it can be difficult to snap out of it. But, to be clear, you’re not necessarily hurting anything. So, as long as you’re not feeling any pain from it, you don’t technically need to stop if you don’t want to, Tamara Huff, MD, FAAOS, an orthopedic surgeon at Vigeo Orthopedics, tells SELF. (If it does start to feel uncomfortable in any way, you should absolutely stop.)