Why Do Our Joints Pop, Click, Crack and Make Noise?
By JD Fields, DPT, Cert DN
AZOPT Glendale Clinic Manager and Physical Therapist

Have you ever noticed your joint popping, clicking, cracking, or making some other type of noise? I commonly hear this symptom described in my physical therapy evaluations. Naturally, it is very concerning to the patients. Hopefully, through this blog, I can address many of these concerns and questions regarding these sounds.

One of the first questions I will ask, “Are the joint noises accompanied by other symptoms?” This is the minority of joint noises. In certain situations, popping can be indicative of specific tissues being responsible for some of the noise. Symptoms like pain with clicking, locking (joint unable to move) with clicking, feeling of instability, clunking, or giving way with popping are reasons to be more aware of the noise. These are also cause for further examination by a physical therapist or another medical professional.

The majority of time the popping/clicking can be explained as simple noise. Although we do not have a great explanation as to why joints do this, we do have solid theoretical ideas on why this may be happening. Many of the joints that you will hear popping/clicking from are called synovial joints. This basically means the joint is filled with fluid and surrounded by a joint capsule separating inside from outside. Gasses build up in the joint and with certain movements are pushed out of the joint causing a popping sensation. This is the same kind of sensation you may get while cracking your knuckles or other joints in your body.

Another reason for noisy joints is due to the surrounding ligaments, musculature and tendons along the joint. These structures are made to slide and glide in and around each other in a coordinated manner. Many times, these tissues can rub and move over one another leading to a certain sound or sensation of a pop. Another reason for hearing noises is due to the makeup of some of the tissues. For example, a quick stretch of tendons and ligaments when elevating our arm or squatting our legs will create a popping/crackling noise, called crepitus. This happens in people with and without accompanying joint pain.

Many have been told that the noises are stemming from the arthritic changes in your joints. Although this is a possible contribution (due to breakdown of the cartilage/joint surfaces), it does not mean that it is necessarily a problem. Arthritic or degenerative changes in the joint are usually part of a normal aging process and are likely present in others that do not have popping/clicking or pain as well. There is also a high possibility that this may not be the source of the popping or clicking.

The bulk of individuals have a noisy joint that is not causing any further damage or does not indicate a major problem with the joint. With appropriate exercises for mobility and/or strengthening, often times the noises are eliminated.

Many people will become fixated on these noises, which can actually lead to anxiety that can lead to an increased pain response at the joint. However, we should not let noisy joints or popping/clicking in our joints prevent us from attempting or performing any of our regular physical activities as well as limits us from attempting new activities. In the majority of situations, this would be considered “a normal abnormality” at the joint with majority of people experiencing similar symptoms. In many instances, improvement is usually seen with continual performance of the noisy activity.

If you do have concerns or questions regarding noises you are hearing in your joints, please do not hesitate to consult with your AZOPT physical therapist!