Your joints, including those in your knuckles, are surrounded by a membrane called the synovial membrane, which forms a capsule around the ends of your bones. Inside this membrane is synovial fluid, which acts as a lubricant and shock absorber so your bones don’t grind together when you move. When you crack your knuckles or any other joint, it expands the space between your bones, creating negative pressure that draws synovial fluid into the new gap.
This influx of synovial fluid is what causes the popping sound and feeling when you crack a knuckle. If you continually crack your knuckles, the synovial membrane and the surrounding ligaments will loosen, making it easier for your joints to crack.
Can cracking knuckles lead to arthritis?
Dr Ashish Jain, Senior Consultant - Orthopaedics at Max Hospital Shalimar Bagh says: The biggest concern about cracking your knuckles is that it could lead to arthritis, specifically osteoarthritis. If you have osteoarthritis, the cartilage within your joints is progressively being damaged and the synovial fluid is typically reduced as well. The pain and joint stiffness that is felt is a result of bones starting to come into contact with each other as cartilage and synovial fluid diminishes. To date, research has not shown a correlation between knuckle cracking and osteoarthritis in your hands.
Unintended Consequences of Knuckle Cracking
While cracking your knuckles might not lead to arthritis, it does appear to have other consequences. In a study of 300 people aged 45 and older, habitual knuckle crackers were found to more likely have hand swelling and lower grip strength.
The study concluded that habitual knuckle cracking results in functional hand impairment. The damage was likely the result of the repeated stretching and loosening of the ligaments during repeated knuckle cracking.
Breaking the habit of Knuckle Cracking
There’s no specific treatment for knuckle cracking. However, it may become an obsessive habit. In this case, you might want to talk to your doctor about different therapies that could help you cope with knuckle cracking.
If you have a habit of cracking your knuckles and would like to stop, try the following:
- Keep your hands busy
- Twirl a pencil or a coin to occupy your hands and help you forget about cracking your knuckles.
- Distract yourself
- When you feel like cracking your knuckles, stop what you’re doing and move on to a different activity.
- Use the rubber band method
- Some people report success with breaking bad habits, such as knuckle cracking, by tying a rubber band around their wrist and snapping it whenever they are about to engage in the act.
- See a professional
- If knuckle cracking is interfering with your life, you might need professional help to deal with the habit. A doctor or therapist may offer you certain forms of behavioural therapy.
Are There Benefits to Cracking Your Knuckles?
When you crack your knuckles, the joints loosen and have more mobility for a short period. This perceived positive feeling may be why some people become habitual knuckle crackers. The movement also offers a sort of therapeutic release. Chronic knuckle crackers may come to regard the habit as a form of stress relief.
If you crack your knuckles, there aren’t any serious health effects to worry about. The habit won’t lead to arthritis, though it may affect hand grip strength. There are no significant benefits to cracking your knuckles and there is a possibility that it could cause injury or damage to your joints and ligaments over time.