Joints That Make Those Popping or Cracking Sounds

Joints That Make Those Popping or Cracking Sounds

If you’ve ever heard a loud pop as you bent down to pick something up, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s normal for your joints to make popping and cracking noises.

These sounds can be caused by a number of things, including when soft tissues — such as tendons and ligaments — rub or snap over other tissues and bones, explained Dr. Aman Dhawan. He is an orthopedic sports medicine specialist at Penn State Health’s Milton Hershey Medical Center.

“Our joints are mobile, so there are a lot of things that slide over or run past each other. When they move, there is the potential for anatomy to intersect,” he said in a Penn State news release.

The sounds can also be caused by pockets of nitrogen gas within the fluid that helps lubricate joints and provides nutrition to cartilage, Dhawan added.

According to Dr. Robert Gallo, another orthopedic sports medicine specialist at Hershey Medical Center, the only time you need to be concerned about noisy joints is if you also have swelling or pain.

There’s no link between joint sounds and arthritis, both doctors agreed. And cracking your joints does not make them swell up or become arthritic, they added.

“Joint sounds are not really an indicator of health or lack of health,” Dhawan said. He pointed out that the cracking or popping sounds “may be irritating to the listener, but that’s a separate issue. There is really no evidence that it causes any damage.”

Some people believe chondroitin and glucosamine supplements or injections help lubricate joints. But there is little evidence to prove they are effective, Gallo said.

Your joints can benefit from stretching and strengthening exercises, low-impact workouts (such as swimming and bicycling), maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking, the doctors advised.

“There is good data to support getting rid of excess weight because it does improve pain in the joints of the lower extremities, as well as decreases your risk of getting arthritis or of having it progress,” Dhawan said. “The joints carry the weight of our bodies, so the less stress you put on them, the longer they will stay healthy.”

How to Manage Your Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, happens when the cartilage in a joint breaks down. Cartilage allows the bones in a joint to glide over one another. When the cartilage breaks down, the bones rub together. This causes pain, swelling, and loss of motion. Osteoarthritis most often affects the hands, neck, lower back, knees, and hips.

Your healthcare provider can help you find ways to reduce pain, move better, and protect your joints from further injury. Changes in your daily activities can also help. These changes may include weight management, exercise, pain control, joint protection, and medication. If these don’t help, surgery may be an option.

Weight management

Extra weight can put stress on your joints and increase pain. This happens most often in the weight-bearing joints, such as your hips, knees, and ankles.

Weight loss is not easy, but even losing a small amount of weight can help. Talk with your healthcare provider about ways to lose weight. Diet changes and exercise can help. A dietician or nutritionist can help you with eating healthy. In some cases, medication or weight loss surgery may help.


Exercise is a key part of arthritis care. Exercise strengthens the muscles that support your joints. It also lessens joint pain and stiffness. And, it helps to improve your overall health. You should try to do a variety of exercises to build strength and improve your lung and heart health. All exercises burn calories and can help you lose weight. It is critical to talk with your healthcare provider prior to starting an exercise routine. Your healthcare provider can help you determine what type of exercise routine and intensity level is best for you. Your healthcare provider may also be able to give you handouts on exercise techniques or refer you to a physical therapist to learn the optimal exercise routine for your needs.

Man using resistance band to strengthen his shoulders and arms
A man uses resistance band to strengthen his shoulders and arms.

The types of exercise are:

  • Strengthening exercises. These can be done with exercise bands or resistance bands (inexpensive exercise aids), or with weights.
  • Aerobic activities. These exercises keep your heart and lungs strong. Moderate aerobic activity for 30 minutes most days of the week is recommended. You can even break it up into three 10-minute increments. Activities such as swimming, walking, cycling are good choices.
  • Range of motion/stretching activities. These can lessen pain and stiffness and help you move better.
  • Balance exercises. These help you maintain balance and improve your daily living. Yoga and tai chi are excellent examples.

Start exercising slowly each time by gently moving your joints. Warm up for at least 5 to 10 minutes before any exercise. Talk with your healthcare provider:

  • Before starting an exercise program or adding new exercises to your daily routine
  • When a joint becomes painful or swollen
  • About taking pain medication or using ice or heat before or after you exercise

Joint protection

To lessen pain and protect your joints from further damage you should:

  • Balance rest with activity. It’s important to be active and to exercise every day. But, you should rest in between periods of activity.
  • Take care of your joints. There are things you do every day that can make your joint symptoms worse. And, there are better ways of doing those same things. For example:
    • Store heavy kitchen items at waist-height so that you can easily get to them.
    • Use aids like long-handled graspers and jar-openers.
  • Recognize pain. If your joints hurt more than usual, you may have done too much.
  • Sleep. It’s important to get enough sleep each night. Sleep gives your energy to be active during the day. It also helps you to feel better overall. If you are having trouble sleeping, or don’t feel rested when you wake up, talk with your healthcare provider.


Over-the-counter and prescription medications can help reduce the pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis. They include:

  • Pills, topical medication (rubbed on the skin), and injections into the joint
  • Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen

It’s very important that you talk with your healthcare provider before taking any medication for arthritis. Even medications that are available without prescription can cause serious side effects. Some can make other medical problems worse and interfere with other medications.

Each person reacts differently to these medications. If one medication doesn’t work for you, your provider may prescribe a different one.

Pain control

Although medications can help control most arthritis pain, you can also try:

  • Relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, yoga, or easy stretching can help.
  • Cold and heat. Applying ice packs, moist heat, or hot showers and baths can help lessen pain and stiffness. Ask your healthcare provider what he or she suggests.
  • Other methods. Massage, acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS (a small device that delivers light impulses to the nerves) can also help.


If other treatments don’t work for your arthritis, you may need surgery.

  • Arthroscopic surgery. During arthroscopic surgery, the healthcare provider uses a special tool called an arthroscope to see and work inside your joint. It may be done to remove loose or damaged cartilage and bone. It can also be used to smooth or reposition bones.
  • Joint replacement surgery. Joint replacement surgery is when the damaged joint is replaced with new man-made joints. The knee and hip joints are replaced most often.

Talk with your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks of these procedures.

There are many ways to handle the pain of osteoarthritis. Work with your healthcare provider to figure out what’s best for you.

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Is It Time for a New Joint?

Millions of us struggle with pain and loss of motion because of joint damage caused by arthritis. If other treatments don’t offer relief, you may wonder about turning in your worn-out joints for new ones.

Surgery may not be your first choice. But if you are a candidate for total joint replacement, know that more than 90% of people have good to excellent results, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. They get relief from pain and can return to normal daily activities.

Should you have surgery?

Joint replacement should be a final step in treatment. More conservative treatments are generally recommended before joint replacement.

Those other treatments include using pain medicine, losing weight to ease stress on the joint, and reducing physical activities that cause pain. Healthcare providers also may suggest exercises to keep muscles and joints flexible, promote fitness, and make muscles stronger that support damaged joints.

While most people undergoing joint replacement surgery are in their 60s or older, younger people may undergo joint replacement when their condition supports this. However, younger people may have other choices available to them like changing to a less physically demanding job, or having a different type of procedure that realigns or only replaces part of a joint.

The younger you are when you get a new joint, the more likely you are to need surgery to revise the joint replacement in the future. Surgery to fix or replace artificial joints has a risk of infection and other complications about 4 times greater than the first surgery. Because healthcare providers shape and remove bone to accept the new joint, repeated surgery also leaves less bone to attach to each new joint.

When do you need surgery?

X-ray evidence of joint damage is 1 of the factors used to decide who should have this surgery. Your pain and other symptoms are the most important things to keep in mind when deciding. This is mostly a quality of life decision.

People who are considered for joint replacement surgery should have 1 of the following: severe pain during activity, such as walking or getting up from a chair; pain that prevents them from doing activities; or pain at night that prevents them from sleeping.

What can you expect?

To get ready, you should work with your healthcare provider to be sure you can tolerate anesthesia. Have dental problems fixed before surgery to reduce the risk for infection. Any medical problems should be made stable before surgery.

Total joint replacement involves a 2-day or 3-day hospital stay. Typical hip and knee patients can walk the next day using a walker. You’ll probably be released from the hospital on the third or fourth day, but you’ll need time to recover.

At first, you may need items like crutches or a walker after hip replacement. Within a few months, you should be able to return to most of your normal daily activities without help. You may still need physical therapy.

After shoulder replacement surgery, you can start shoulder exercises with someone else moving the joint for you. Three to 6 weeks after surgery, you’ll do exercises a therapist gives you. In time, you’ll begin to stretch and strengthen your shoulder so you can get back to normal use with far less pain than you had before the surgery.

Recovery from joint replacement surgery generally involves some pain for 2 to 3 months. However, it’s usually a different type of pain and will go away as you recover.

Will a new joint last?

Experts warn against unrealistic expectations for a new joint. You shouldn’t expect it to bear activities that involve jumping or the kind of stress that would be hard on a natural joint. Your healthcare provider will advise you to avoid certain activities after surgery. Your healthcare provider may even recommend that you should avoid certain joint positions in order to prevent dislocation of the joint. The limitations given will depend on the joint that is replaced, as well as your situation.

An artificial joint will eventually develop changes from wear and tear, even under normal use and activity conditions. It may need to be replaced at some point. Artificial joints generally last 10 to 15 years. A person who is younger at the time of the joint replacement surgery may eventually need to have the new joint replaced. The good news is that new materials being developed for joint replacement are giving artificial joints a longer life span.

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