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Joint Cracking and Muscle Pops
Is it safe to workout when your body is making all that noise?

Are your joints making noise?
Are your joints making noise?

I've heard a lot of strange noises when training people. Grunting as they move their weights and groaning when they finish doing cardio. But the popping and cracking noises that came from one client's joints were enough to make me stop the workout cold. I asked him, "Are you OK?"

"Of course!" he replied. "It's just my joints, they always make those kinds of noises. Cracking joints are common with a lot of people."

As I looked into it, I discovered he was right. Cracking and popping joints are relatively common in people of all ages. Strangely though, medical science still isn't quite sure what causes the noise. There are three leading theories.

  1. Ligaments, the bands of tissue that hold bones together, make a snapping noise when a rapidly moving joint pulls them tight.

  2. It's the sound of tendons snapping over or around a joint.

  3. The sound is caused by nitrogen bubbles in the body's synovial fluid being pulled inside the joint. When the joint is manipulated, it makes a distinct popping or cracking noise.

(Number three is the leading theory is because of timing. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for the nitrogen gas to dissolve back into the joint fluid after the "crack" or "pop." While the gas is re-dissolving, the joints don't make a sound. No nitrogen, no noise. That makes the nitrogen bubble theory the most plausible.)

Whatever the reasons for it, doctors all gave the same advice. If you've got cracking joints, it's generally not something to worry about. It doesn't seem to damage the joints and it doesn't lead to arthritis.

That doesn't mean you should crack your knuckles voluntarily, though. The small amount of research that has been conducted shows people who repeatedly crack their knuckles display soft tissue damage to the joint capsule and have a "lower grip strength."

Of course, knuckle crackers did score better on one measurement. The mobility in their joints increased right after popping.

If the noise your joints make is bothering you, don't waste time looking for supplements or treatments to prevent it because there aren't any. Nothing has been shown to change either the frequency or volume of the cracks and pops. For the most part, they're a harmless thing some people have to live with.

For those of you with noisy joints, here are a few things you should watch for.

  • Swelling is always a bad sign. Whenever swelling accompanies joint noises, it should always be evaluated by a doctor.

  • Pain is something else to be aware of. Pain can be caused by loose cartilage, tears in the meniscus or injured ligaments. If your joints are making noises that cause pain, get a checkup to find out what the problem is.

  • If the sound you hear is more like a crunching or paper being crumpled up when you extend your knees, you should get checked for crepitus. That occurs when there's damage to cartilage within the joint and can be the result of injury, aging or an early sign of arthritis.

  • Any clunking or grinding noises should be checked out immediately.

  • Finally, joints that lock, get stuck or lose range of motion are warning signs. If you start losing function in a joint, there are many possible reasons why and they all should get medical attention.

While there doesn't seem to be any way of quieting your joints down, you can do things to protect them. If you're overweight, lose a few pounds to reduce the pressure on your knees. Eat a diet rich in antioxidants to maintain cartilage and essential fatty acids to normalize joint function. If you smoke, quit because it reduces bone strength.

All those same things you've been told over the years still apply. Exercise and eat a balanced diet. It's still the best medicine.

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