Why do our joints crack and click?

Joint health: why do your joints click and is it safe to lift heavy if you're always cracking your knuckles?

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Are you a knuckle cracker? Do your knees click? How about your hips? If you’ve got clicky joints then you’ve probably wondered if that impacts your ability to workout. Habitual knuckle clicker Becks Shepherd investigates exactly why we click so much.

I can’t remember a day going by without my joints clicking. From my knuckles to my knees and my hips, my joints crack, click and pop all on their own, whether I like it or not. I’m the grand old age of 28.

Is all this clicking and cracking normal?  And how can people like me look after their joints to protect them against future issues?

According to James Raiher, registered osteopath and clinic director at The Practice at 322, clicky joints can be a natural occurrence. He tells Stylist: “Some people seem to click more than others, and most of the time, it’s completely harmless.

“Your joints are more likely to click if you take part in exercises in which joint range of motion is tested to the maximum. This is very common in yoga and martial arts, for example.”

 While being able to crack a knuckle might be commonplace (at least among yogis), it’s important to note that if you’re suffering from painful clicks, it’s worth getting checked out by your GP, an osteopath or a physiotherapist. 

What happens when our joints click?

According to Raiher, our joints are lubricated by synovial fluid which looks like the texture of an egg yolk. “This fluid contains dissolved gases which form into tiny bubbles when we stretch our joints,” he explains. “These bubbles then collapse and go ‘pop’; when we click our knuckles, this is the sound we hear.” That process even has a name:  ‘cavitation’. 

As we get older, our joints get more clicky. That’s because, Raiher explains, the cartilage between our joints slowly wears anyway. That actually leads to a different kind of clicking.

“While this is normal for most people, it might be exacerbated by postural changes which also accompany the ageing process – but these can often be remedied,” he says. That leads us nicely on to the next pressing question.

How can we stop our joints from clicking so much?

There aren’t many things a healthy, balanced diet and exercise can’t solve. According to Nuffield Health, exercise can help to prevent and relieve pain in your joints, as well as reinforcing cartilage that can become damaged over time.

And Raiher agrees: “If you want to decrease the clickiness of your joints, remember that they love movement. Keeping them moving helps them to stay lubricated with synovial fluid.”

To stop your joints from clicking, you don’t have to suddenly start exercising like mad. Kurt Johnson, founder of Osteo LDN, says that working on maintaining good posture helps to prevent your joints from clicking, as will a solid resistance training programme using full range of movement (ROM) lifts to increase joint strength and mobility. 

“Even going for a walk will help keep the joints nice and loose and preserve a healthy weight,” Johnson tells Stylist. However, if you are still hearing clicks, Johnson suggests seeing a manual therapist who can help:

  • Stretch tight muscles causing joint restrictions
  • Build joint stability in parts of the body to help prevent those clicks
  • Assess and help to fix poor posture  

How to tell if a clicking noise is bad

Arthritis is inflammation in the joints. It can cause tenderness, stiffness and restricted movement in your body. 

And along with clicky joints, arthritis isn’t a condition that just affects older people. The NHS says that around 15,000 young people live with the prognosis in the UK and, unfortunately for some, clicking joints can be a sign of the debilitating condition. That does come with a caveat, however.

“Clicking joints can be a sign of arthritis, but not without pain and stiffness first,” Raiher explains. “So a clicking joint is usually not a sign of arthritis on its own. Clinical examination and X-rays are usually the first line investigations for any suspicion of arthritis.” 

What about clicking causing arthritis? Many of us were told at school, for example, that clicking our knuckles would put us at risk, but in recent times, that idea has been refuted. Rahier says: “The myth that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis was soundly disproven by an American doctor named Donald Unger, who cracked the knuckles of only his left hand for 60 years.”

The result? “No arthritis at all,” Rahier says. “In fact, arthritis is mostly an inherited condition rather than an acquired one.” 

3 top tips for looking after our joints

Joint health might not sound like the most interesting topic to sink your teeth into, but it’s something we should all be making a conscious effort to think about. 

Why? Healthy joints enable us to do all kinds of everyday physical movements such as walking, running, jogging and even dancing. They also make going about our general day-to-day life a lot easier – because let’s face it, being in constant pain is no fun.  So how can we take better care of our ageing joints? 

According to Dr Brinda Christopher, consultant specialist in sport and exercise medicine at London Bridge Hospital (part of HCA UK), and head of sports medicine at SVEXA, you can start by drinking more water. 

“I think people underestimate the role of adequate hydration in regard to joint health,” Dr Christopher explains.

“Up to 80% of cartilage is made up of water, and there is also synovial fluid that requires a level of readily available fluid. Although it is not quite as simple as consuming more fluids to increase fluid in the joints, it’s a good starting point as a preventative measure.” 

She also recommends eating more green veggies (such as kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts and more) as these are rich sources of vitamin K, which has been linked to better joint health, and getting enough collagen. A study of collagen supplements in young athletes found that the supplements significantly improved joint pain at rest, while walking, standing, carrying and lifting 

For more health and fitness tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club library.

Images: Getty

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