How to Tell Whether Your Noisy Joints Are Normal (or Not)
Sometimes you move like a well-oiled machine, and other times your body creaks like a rusty ten-speed. Those sounds and sensations are referred to as crepitus (KREHP-ih-dihs), says Joel Press, MD, physiatrist in chief at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. And while they may seem like cause for worry, they're typically just harmless, idle chatter. A cracking or popping sound in your ankles or hips when you move after sitting for a long time could be a tight tendon snapping against the bone, says Stacey Pierce-Talsma, an associate professor and chair of the osteopathic manipulative medicine department at Touro University California in Vallejo. A popping or grinding sound in your neck may occur when your vertebrae shift and release; a clunking, clicking, or snapping in your shoulder is due to normal movement of ligaments and tendons as they glide over bony surfaces. After hearing the latter, you may notice an increased range of motion in that part of your body, prompting you to add another sound to the mix: "Ahhh."
The cracking or crunching in your neck or grinding in your knees could signal age-related joint degeneration. "Cartilage wears down over time, exposing joint areas that may rub against one another," says Press. This is as common as gray hair and wrinkles, he adds, and isn't serious on its own.
And the sound when you crack your knuckles? That's just air or gas bubbles being released in the synovial fluid around the joint. "There's no risk in doing this," Press says, "aside from potentially annoying people around you."
However, the soundtrack of your joints should spur you to action when it's accompanied by pain, swelling, redness, bruising, or severe stiffness. In this case, your noisy body could be sounding an alarm—about arthritis (especially in the knee or hip) or torn cartilage (in the knee or shoulder)—so do yourself a favor and pass along the message to a doctor.