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Do your joints pop, click or crack? Here’s why

Every single day patients and people training at Elevate ask me, “What is this clicking sound?” Or, “My back just popped—why did it do that?” Here’s a guide to common sounds your joints make, and whether or not you should be concerned about them.

Joint cavitation: This is the pop that happens within a joint. Most joints are surrounded by a capsule that holds lubricant gases and fluids. When the capsule is stretched enough, the gas moves out and causes a popping sound. This is actually what chiropractic adjustments are trying to create. A joint cavitation will give a reflexive relaxation effect to the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments, reducing pain and inducing more movement at that joint. This can also happen if you are foam rolling or stretching. Below is a head-to-toe demo of chiropractic adjusting.

Tendon slide/snap: These are usually very consistent, reproducible snapping sounds that happen with movement. It feels like a rubber band being plucked. These are very common in the front of the hip and also in the low back. Most of the time this is harmless, but occasionally they can be problematic. Areas such as the shoulder and outside of the knee sometimes become painful with repeated snapping. Just like non-painful snapping, if we change some of the mechanics of the body we can avoid the repeated irritation.

Cartilage grinding: Joint movements sometimes produce a sound like gravel moving around, and these can be painful or non-painful. I recently treated a runner who was suffering from a non-painful cartilage grind, but it had created swelling in the area. The surfaces of our big weight-bearing joints have cartilage to help them glide as we move. If the cartilage is damaged or becomes irregular, you’’ll start to hear these sounds. We want to reduce the stress in these areas because repeated grinding can wear out your cartilage. Find the best mechanics to accomplish your activities while also minimizing this type of popping and clicking.

Crepitus: This one can be a little of all of the above classifications. Most of the time it is a non-painful sound that commonly occurs after an injury to the area. For example, my right ankle clicks so loud when jogging that I have to explain to those that are around me, “No my ankle is not falling off, and no, it does not hurt.” More popping does not necessarily lead to more damage, but if you start to feel any pain, make sure you come in to get that joint evaluated.

When pops and clicks are coming from our bodies it can be very alarming, but, honestly, most of the time they are harmless. Try not to overthink it, but if you have any questions about it don’t hesitate to ask!

Dr. Buth