You might have an ominous click in your knee that sounds like your knee cap is pointing the wrong way, or maybe your ankles sound like bubble wrap being ran over with a steamroller, or even have a neck that crunches like your favourite breakfast cereal when you turn your head…
Joints crack, it’s weird, but why does it happen?
First off, reassure yourself that unless there’s pain or swelling associated with the clicks & pops, there’s probably nothing wrong. Let’s have a look at what might be going on instead:
Most of your joints contain a thin layer of Synovial Fluid which help to lubricant and nourish them. When the space between a joint increases a lot, e.g. if you pull/stretch your fingers, suddenly there’s more space than there is fluid! Gasses which are present in the fluid or around the joint rush in to fill the gaps and form bubbles.
It’s the forming & collapsing of these bubbles that creates the loud cracking/popping noises. This also helps explain why you can’t immediately crack a joint repeatedly, gas disperses and takes a while to reform. The more medical term for noises coming from your joints is crepitus.
The Synovial Fluid comes from the plasma in your blood, so during times of reduced blood flow such as sleeping overnight or staying still for long periods of time, there can be less synovial fluid present in your joints. This means it’s much more likely for gaps to form, and you’re far more likely to get pops & clicks when you first get up in the morning or after being in the same position for a long time!
Once you start moving and get warmed up for the day or for a workout, you’ll notice that most pops and clicks completely stop!
For some people, stretching a joint to the point of a click can feel like a satisfying release of pressure, but it’s important to remember that if you’re also feeling tightness or pain in the same region, e.g., if you’re constantly clicking your lower back just to get relief, there’s probably something else going on - don’t fall into the trap of thinking you just need to “release” your back all the time.
Tendons & Ligaments Moving
Another normal occurrence in your body is unintentional movement of ligaments, tendons & muscles as you move. There are places in your body where there are bony protrusions and as tendons or ligaments pass over them, they can “catch” and slightly move out of place before “snapping” back to it’s original position.
The same way that inactivity slows the production of your Synovial Fluid, being inactive can cause your tendons & ligaments to get stiffer, making them much more likely to catch and make noises where they should slide & stretch.
You’ll most likely hear loud or quick cracks from the neck, knees, wrists or ankles, and deeper thud like pops from the hips, the shoulders can be really noisy due to their massive range of motion and high amount of connective tissue.
But, don’t worry as this is a normal thing to happen – with all your moving parts sometimes something wanders off track! But, if you have a repeated pop or click in the same area which happens EVERY TIME you move a certain way, then you’d want to try and investigate the cause. Over time this can cause inflammation and a lot of pain if left unchecked. For example:
If one knee is always clicking, is your internal and external hip rotation the same on both sides?
Or, if you have one elbow that is cracking all the time, do you have limited thoracic mobility on one side causing your shoulder to sit more forward than the other?
If you do have a repetitive click, then invest the time into checking these things or you could run the risk of wear and tear in the long run.
Inflammation is a normal process in your body’s response to an injury. When damage is detected blood vessels dilate which allows more blood into the area, therefore more nutrients & white blood cells.
However, a poor diet, being overweight, repetitive intense movements or putting unnecessary pressure on joints from bad mobility can cause things to “rub” or become damaged that normally wouldn’t. Fluids rush to the site of pressure to help protect it, which causes inflammation. Sometimes you have visible swelling, but sometimes it is very subtle and although nothing can appear swollen, your joint can still feel “full”.
When there’s inflammation of ligaments, tendons, or other parts of a joint, it can trigger the above causes of pops & clicks: gas bubbles or things moving places they shouldn’t.
Often, inflammation will settle down by itself over time, but if it’s a recurring problem then you should seriously consider addressing the causes of the inflammation without just downing boxes of anti-inflammatories every time it flares up.
Cartilage Wearing Away
Cartilage is a strong but flexible type of connective tissue which sits on the ends of bones, often surrounded by synovial fluid. Its job is to keep your bones moving smoothly against each other.
Cartilage damage is frustrating as you can’t just nip to the shop and get some more. Cartilage doesn’t have a blood supply, so repairing it takes a very long time and sometimes repair just isn’t possible due continuous wear & tear.
This is prominent with athletes who do very intensive training, overweight people who are putting more pressure on their joints, and older people whose joints have simply been used more than younger people.
You’ll hear the term “bone on bone” and sometimes joints can sound like a pestle and mortar grinding up your favourite blend of herbs and spices.
This is one of the reasons that it is so important to take your mobility and joint movement seriously, for your quality of life as you age if for no other reason. Your body reacts to the stimulus it’s given, and inactivity can genuinely cause joint damage – by not stimulating a joint, the mechanical, electrical, and physicochemical signals that help to direct the activity of the regeneration & repair processes are reduced, which can lead to a loss of cartilage.
By regularly moving & loading your joints, you’re keeping these regenerating processes active and stimulated, plus, if you can have strong supporting muscles surrounding the joints, your body will feel much stronger and stable overall. If you don’t, you will start to lose function and get closer to shuffling instead of walking.
If you’re new to joint movement or already know you have cartilage damage then knowing how to build things up gently is the key. Check out this clockwork hips mobility drill for where to start for the lower body:
As you can see it’s a very normal and common occurrence to have noisy joints from time to time, but when names like Snapping Hip Syndrome (SHS) are thrown around, it can make you feel like it’s something that’s a part of you that can’t be changed – “oh well, that’s just me”. Someone assigned a scary diagnosis which explains their pain may start to avoid some/all exercise through fear of their bones wearing away completely…. Not helpful, and ultimately bad for your joints too.
You Should Always Move Your Joints Like Joints
Even if you get disconcerting noises from your joints, avoiding movement won’t help. I’m not saying you need to go out and start CrossFit, but as we saw earlier even gentle movement stimulates the restoration of cartilage & production of synovial fluid.
Frequent, healthy movement also helps to retain good joint centration, basically when your joints are sitting at the optimal angles for movement. This helps to reduce the chance of your ligaments or tendons moving into the wrong places.
When your joints are sitting in bad positions, such as a rounded upper back & tight chest causing your shoulders to sit forwards, your muscles are under strain to try and keep the joint working properly. This can cause a massive lack of stability: somethings are stretched, some things are tight; and stuff can start grinding and crunching. Because of how common rounded shoulders are, most people will hear noises when doing rotational movements like these:
Try them now! If you struggle, it means you don’t have good control over your shoulder blades which makes upper body training a lot harder and your shoulders and neck will probably feel stiff a lot of the time… not to mention you might crave neck & upper back cracks to try and “release” pressure.
What joints like to do doesn’t always match up with what WE like to do, which is why it’s incredibly valuable to add joint care (like those shoulder rotations) into your warm ups and cool downs. It might feel weird and noisy for the first few weeks of doing it but if you stick with it regularly the noises will lessen, and your joints will feel incredible. Shoulders and hips need to rotate, always keep that in mind - just because you’re an active person, it does not mean your joints are getting everything they need.
So, Should You Be Worried About Crunching, Popping, Grinding & Clicks?
But should you try to make them happen less frequently by improving your mobility & movement?
Yes, and very easy to do also!
You can take Glucosamine and Omega 3 supplements, include more things like salmon, trout, mackerel, avocados, olive oil, almonds and walnuts in your diet, but if you want to truly make a change in your body, I find what has helped me much more than food & supplements have been:
· Drinking plenty of water, especially first thing in the morning
· Regularly doing a movement/mobility routine, especially first thing in the morning
· Developing & keeping a good full-body baseline of flexibility - especially in shoulders and hips. You don’t need to be able to do the splits but having a relatively comfortable squat, the ability to lift your arms overhead and being able to do simple tasks like get up and down off the floor are non-negotiable.
Depending on your starting point, it can take a long time to restore full range of motion and stability, so don’t look for a quick fix and instead work on your mobility consistently in the background for 6 months to a year. If you develop habits like we promote in the Simplistic Mobility Method, then you’ll realise it doesn’t have to be a big deal to fit good movement into your normal training!
Don’t stress too much about your body as it is probably fine but do the mobility stuff so that you can have wiggle room to fall over, or play tennis, or chase your kids without something going snap.
If you’re doing the right things then when your body does make little poppity-clicks, you know it’s just gas 😉