Is Cracking Your Knuckles Really Bad for You?

A woman with arthritis massages her hand.
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If your grandmother told you that cracking your knuckles would make them bigger, you’re not alone. This centuries-old wives’ tale still circulates today with this big question: Is the habit of cracking your knuckles really harmful to your health? Let’s find out.

Why People Crack Their Knuckles

For most, an occasional knuckle pop just happens. But for others, knuckle cracking becomes a habit. It’s difficult to say why such habits form, but this body-focused repetitive behavior likely has some psychological influence.

It’s possible that knuckle cracking is an adaptive behavior to regulate emotions. This might be explained when someone cracks their knuckles when they feel bored or anxious, for example.

Where the Sound of Knuckle Cracking Comes From

Believe it or not, what creates the sound of knuckle cracking was an intense scientific debate until 2015, when this article was published.

This study used MRI imaging to view the anatomy of the finger when the cracking motion is made.

The results proved the sound of the knuckle cracking is created when an empty gas cavity forms between the joints as they separate, rather than a bubble collapsing within the fluid within the joints as was once thought.

Knuckle Cracking and Arthritis Risk

Interestingly, this subject has been studied quite a bit. According to this 2011 retrospective study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, there’s good news for knuckle crackers: There is no proven correlation between habitual knuckle cracking and osteoarthritis.

But knuckle cracking might lead to other long-term effects.

Long-term Effects of Knuckle Cracking

There are some possible long-term concerns related to knuckle cracking. In one study, those with a knuckle cracking habit had more hand swelling and less grip strength in their hand. So, it’s possible that cracking your knuckles may reduce the function of your hand over time.

However, this article published in 2016 showed no long-term loss of grip strength among knuckle crackers, but did see increased cartilage between the head of the metacarpal (finger joint).

Another thing to keep in mind is the possible physical and emotional connection between knuckle cracking. Research has pointed to a possible link between habitual knuckle cracking and other unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and nail biting. So, getting to the root of your knuckle cracking habit might be important to improve your physical and emotional health.

When to Seek Medical Help

For most, it seems as though knuckle cracking doesn’t carry many serious long-term risks. However, if cracking your knuckles results in immediate or chronic pain, it’s important to seek evaluation from an orthopedic specialist.

Learn more about our compassionate Orthopedic Care.

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