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Does joint cracking cause arthritis?

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Updated May 30, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Does joint cracking cause arthritis?
Answer: Cracking joints is a common experience for many individuals. Some people make their joints crack, while others have cracking and creaking joints with normal activities. The good news is that there is no evidence that typical knuckle cracking or joint creaks will cause arthritis.

What causes a cracking joint?

Different conditions may cause a cracking joint, and the problem is not always clear. In most cases, the exact cause of a crack joint cannot be determined. Some causes may include:
  • Gas Bubbles
    The slow accumulation of gases around a joint can cause the formation of tiny bubbles of gas. Joint cracking may occur when these gases are released.
  • Tendons or Ligaments
    Tendons and ligaments cross over the joints. These structures may pop or crack as they snap over the bony prominences around the joint.
  • Arthritis
    Damage to the joint surface, the cartilage, can cause cracking joints. However, this type of joint cracking usually is found in older patients who have known arthritis. It is uncommon for a patient's first complaint of arthritis to be joint cracking.

Does the joint cracking cause arthritis?

It's unlikely that joint cracking is a significant cause of arthritis. Joint cracking is usually painless, and so long as it does not cause pain, most doctors agree that you are unlikely to be doing any harm. There are some conditions that can cause a joint cracking that need to be addressed, but these tend to cause symptoms of pain.

If you have joint cracking that causes pain, you should be evaluated by your doctor. Otherwise, you are not likely to be causing any problems, including arthritis, by your joint cracking.

Sources:

Deweber K, et al. "Knuckle cracking and hand osteoarthritis" J Am Board Fam Med. 2011 Mar-Apr;24(2):169-74.

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