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Is Knuckle Cracking Really That Bad For You?


Knuckle Cracking
Knuckle Cracking

Do you have a habit of constantly cracking your fingers? It may be pleasant for you to burst your fingers, but the truth is that it is a detrimental practice for your health. That simple ‘crack’ causes wear on the joints and also on the tendons and ligaments that surround them.

For some it is a nervous habit; for others, a feeling that brings relief. According to the research that is read, between 25% and 54% of the people do it; and men, more than women.

Why Does It Sound Like This?

The reason why the joint clicks or cracks when pulled is not yet fully understood.

The joints are protected by joint capsules that contain a natural lubricant called synovial fluid, necessary for joint movement. Hence such joints are called synovial joints - the responsibility of synovial fluid is to lubricate the joints and allow movement without the bone surfaces rubbing against each other.  Inside the synovial fluid, there are microscopic air bubbles. By cracking the knuckles, the joint is placed in a position that causes the space between the bones to increase and also the volume of the synovial capsule, which leads to less pressure inside the joint and an effect we call "negative pressure" causing the dissolved gases to coalesce to form air bubbles to occupy the new space created. When force is applied to the knuckles, the bubbles formed explode quickly generating the characteristic "crack" sound.

To return to their initial state, the gases need between 15 and 30 minutes. Once the knuckles crack, they cannot be repeated for about 15 minutes. This gives the joint time to return to its normal size and for more gas to dissolve in the fluid. They are very small amounts of gas for the noise they make. It is not known exactly how it is possible for such small amounts of gas to produce much noise.

Another reason behind it is thought to be the movement of the ligaments around the knuckle. A similar sound is produced when there is a sudden movement of the tendons in the joints or the friction of the bones with the cartilage.

In a 2015 study, researchers observed knuckles as they broke using an MRI scan. They found that a cavity formed due to the negative pressure created when the joint quickly separated. They determined that the sound was produced by the formation of the cavity. However, this could not explain the volume of the sound.

Another study conducted in 2018 suggested that the sound was actually caused by the partial collapse of the cavity. A review of the studies noted that it takes 20 minutes for the cavity to fully collapse before a new cavity can form. This may be why after you've cracked your knuckles; you can't do it again right away.

Why Do People Do It?

Studies show that about 54% of people crack their knuckles. They do this for many reasons, including:

  • Sound the Sound: Some people crack knuckles simply because they like to hear the sound of knuckle cracking.
  • Pleasure Feeling: People crack knuckles simply because they like it. The custom may derive from the pleasure of stimulating the nerve endings in the area by stretching the joints.
  • Increases Mobility: Some people think that cracking the knuckles leaves more room in the joint, which relieves tension and increases mobility. However, while it may appear that there is more space, there is no evidence that there really is.
  • Nervousness: Most experts are of the opinion that the mania to crunch the fingers responds to nervousness. Like wringing your hands or twisting your hair, cracking your knuckles can be a way to keep your hands busy when you're nervous.
  • Stress: Some people who are stressed need to take something out. Knuckle cracking can allow deflection and release without causing harm.
  • Habit: Once you start cracking your knuckles for any of these reasons, it's easy to keep doing it until it happens without even thinking about it. When you find yourself unconsciously cracking your knuckles many times a day, it becomes a habit. People who do it five times a day or more are called habitual crackers.

Is It Bad To Crack Knuckles?

Regarding the dangers of this common habit, it is worth noting that there are not many scientific studies. Attempts have been made to analyze various people who frequently crack their fingers to find out if this causes any joint damage, such as arthritis or osteoarthritis. During this study, it was found that the fingers showed signs of damage, such as soft tissue injuries and reduced grip strength. This seems to be related to the rapid and repetitive stretching and contraction of the ligaments that support the joints.

Scientific Studies On The Matter

Although it is a very common activity, there are not many scientific works that have studied the phenomenon.

One of the first was that of scientist Robert Swezey, who in 1975 analyzed the state of the joints of a group of 28 elderly people who used to crack their knuckles. He did not find any relationship between his particular hobby and the development of osteoarthritis in the hands of the elderly.

One of the most well-known studies on this subject is of Dr. Donald Unger, a doctor from California, United States.  Donald Unger used himself as an object of experimentation. He published a letter addressed to the editor of the prestigious rheumatology journal ' Arthritis and Rheumatism ' which he claimed to have been cracking the knuckles of his left hand for 60 years at least twice a day. To the right, he had more or less left it alone to use as a control and make comparisons. Every year he examined his hands and never found traces of a degenerative disease even in the hand that "broke" his fingers. Donald Unger won the 2009 ‘Ig Nobel Prize’ after spending 60 years cracking the knuckles of his left hand daily without any harmful consequences.

Another study looked at 30 elderly people at a Los Angeles nursing home. Those who broke their fingers almost all their lives did not have osteoarthritis.

In a larger study conducted by the Internal Medicine Service of the Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit, USA, researchers examined the hands of 300 people over 45 years of age. Those who had been in the habit of cracking their fingers seemed to have a less strong grip and 84% of them showed swelling in their hands.

Many people think cracking the knuckles can cause pain, swelling, or deform the joint. In fact, the chances of that happening are very slim. If the bad thing really happened, chances are there is another disorder that you are experiencing.

Although there are not many studies on this phenomenon the following possible effects are believed happen of excessively cracking the knuckles:

1.     The habit of cracking the knuckles can indeed cause the joint to detach or injure the ligaments around the joint. However, that only happened if it was done with high strength.

2.     It could end up affecting the cartilage in the area, generating instability in the joint and loss of strength.

3.     You are moving a joint to have more movements than it should have and you increase its imbalance. As that imbalance increases, the need to creak the joints again grows.

4.     With age or overuse, this fluid decreases, and the joints wear out, causing some common joint pain. If you notice joint pain or swelling when you crack your knuckles, it's most likely caused by another condition, such as arthritis or gout.

5.     According to Medical News data, snapping fingers can cause chronic joint inflammation and affect hand strength.

6.     In addition, the sound produced can disturb the people around you. This will also make it difficult for you to break this habit.

The Arthritis Myth

As we have seen, knuckle cracking is not a good habit for our health. However, there is a legend that crunching your fingers causes arthritis (inflammation of the joints of the bones) although there is no scientific study to support it today. Furthermore, in 2009 Donald Unger was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize (alternative prizes for unconventional scientific work) for having been cracking only the knuckles of one of his hands for 60 years and demonstrating that this gesture had not degenerated into arthritis. Although the work Uger may seem comical, the fact is that Harvard University and Johns Hopkins have also denied the relationship between finger-crunching and arthritis.

How To Stop Cracking Knuckles

Though cracking your knuckles does not hurt you, but it can be distracting or annoying to the people around you. Regardless of its scientific basis, those who practice it know that the sensation is addictive. Also, you may find it difficult to quit if it becomes a habit. As you can see, it is a habit that does not bring you any benefit, it is recommended to quit the habit.

Here are some tips on how you can stop cracking your knuckles so that cracking your fingers don’t become a habit:

  • Think about why you did it and try to address the cause.
  • Find other ways to relieve stress, such as breathing exercises, exercise, or meditation.
  • Occupy your hands with other stress relievers, like squeezing a stress ball or rubbing a worry stone.
  • Be aware every time you crack your knuckles and consciously stop yourself.
  • Wear a rubber band around your wrist and adjust it when you are about to click your knuckles.

When To See A Doctor

Cracking your knuckles doesn't hurt, so it shouldn't be painful, cause swelling, or change the shape of the joint. These are signs that something is wrong and should be evaluated by your doctor.

Injuring your finger by pulling too hard or moving it in the wrong direction is often very painful. Your finger may look crooked or start to swell. If this happens, you should see your doctor immediately.

If you notice that your joints are sore or swollen while cracking your knuckles, it is likely due to an underlying condition and should be evaluated by your doctor.


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