Does Cracking Your Knuckles Cause Arthritis?

October 01, 2019

Woman Cracking Her Knuckles
Vicki Shanta Retelny

Whether you like the sound of popping your knuckles — a.k.a. finger joints — or just do it as a mindless habit to relieve boredom, stress or tension in your hands, do you ever wonder if it has any long-term health consequences? Does cracking your knuckles cause arthritis? These questions, among others, related to knuckle cracking have been of long interest to researchers.

The actual cause of the sound of the articular release of the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint is somewhat debated. Some theories hypothesize that the cracking sound is vibrations of the tissues surrounding the joint; sudden tightening of the fibrous capsule around the joint or sudden growth and collapse of small gas bubbles in the synovial fluid, the lubricant like substance around the knuckle joint. The other theory is the most common one. The bursting of the gas bubbles is believed to cause the familiar and somewhat irritating, popping sound. Consecutively cracking the same joint is not possible as it's been shown to take about thirty minutes for the gas to absorb back into the synovial fluid.

Is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad for You?

Knuckle cracking is common in the United States with research showing that up to 45 percent of people do it. When you crack your knuckles your joints are shifted. What does this do to your hand health over time? The jury is still out about how knuckle cracking affects your health as studies have been mixed in this arena. More recent studies find that no more disability, swelling or decreased grip strength exists among those who habitually knuckle crack versus those who do not. The sound of the knuckle cracking may be more distracting and irritating than anything; however, it's questionable regarding the long-term effects on hand function.

Does cracking your knuckles cause arthritis? No, this is a myth that was debunked by the Nobel Prize winner, Donald Unger, MD, who cracked the knuckles on his left hand for fifty years with no arthritis detected in either of his hands. Cracking your knuckles may actually prevent arthritis as moving your joints more frequently may help keep them pliable and healthy. Some observational studies have shown a correlation between knuckle cracking and osteoarthritis, but in the long run they failed to show a strong association.

Ways to Curb Knuckle Cracking

Cracking your knuckles is neither beneficial nor harmful to your joint health. Regardless, it can be a mindless addictive behavior. If you have a habit of popping your knuckles and want to break it, here are some things you can do:

  • Massage your hands regularly throughout the day.
  • Set goals and reward yourself with a manicure if you don't crack your knuckles that day.
  • Keep your hands busy as much as possible.
  • Take frequent, brief breaks from typing and monotonous work.
  • Flex your hands open and closed when they feel tight and tired.
  • Squeeze a soft, malleable ball or thinking putty to alleviate stress and tension in your hands.

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