Why Does My Joint Pop?

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Jesse Lewis, PT, DPT, OCS


What’s that popping in my knee (or shoulder, or hip, or….)?

Joint popping and cracking while you’re doing an exercise can sound scary. “Is it OK that my joint pops?” is one of the most common questions I get asked. It’s almost always nothing, but there are a few times where it might be worth looking into. Usually, it’s just air being released from the joint.

What IS Joint Popping?

If your knee joint pops and cracks it’s easy to think the worst. You panic that something is damaged, or that you need a knee replacement. You can chill. Most of the time, joint popping is simply gas being released from the joint. Think about the sound of fizz from a soda can.  That fizzy sound is gas bubbles being released from the liquid. The same thing can happen when you move a joint around. Releasing that pressure from a joint is also the reason that it often feels good to pop a joint. The popping can also be a tendon gliding over a bone, fluid moving around the joint, or a number of other non-scary and not harmful things.  

Does It Mean I’m Falling Apart?

The vast majority of the time, clicking or popping in a joint isn’t a sign of danger. The old urban myth of cracking your knuckles will cause arthritis is a good example. Your mom or grandmother probably told you that if you keep cracking your knuckles you’ll end up with arthritis when you’re their age. That just isn’t true. Multiple studies show that cracking your knuckles doesn’t lead to arthritis. The same is true for knees, shoulders, hips, etc. Your joints popping while performing exercise or walking down stairs doesn’t mean that you’re in danger of future problems.

When Should I Care?

There are a few cases where you want to be careful of the popping and see a physical therapist.

  1. When there is pain every time your joint pops, that’s a sign that you shouldn’t push through it.
  2. If you feel like your joint is unstable and is about to give out when it pops then you should modify your exercise and get it evaluated.
  3. You’ve had an injury in that area, and there is some new popping after the injury.

If none of the three reasons to be cautious apply to you, you can rest easy. That joint popping and cracking is totally normal and you don’t have to be so worried about it.

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