There are many reasons people crack or pop their knuckles. Some do it as a nervous tic, others do it because of restlessness, still others do it to relieve pressure and stiffness and then some, particularly children, do it simply because it annoys someone else.
Many of us first heard as children, and then continued to hear as adults, that cracking your knuckles would lead to arthritis when you’re older. Is there truth to that warning? That’s what VERIFY reader Lindsay wanted to know.
Does cracking your knuckles lead to arthritis?
- Arthritis Foundation
- Houston Methodist Hospital
- Tufts Medical Center
- Harvard Health
- Cleveland Clinic
- Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
- University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Studies on knuckle-cracking from 1975, 1990, 2011, 2017 and a frequently referenced informal experiment from 1998, in which a doctor cracked the knuckles of only one of his hands for 50 years
No, cracking your knuckles will not lead to arthritis.
WHAT WE FOUND
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Cracking your knuckles increases the space between your finger joints, which causes gas bubbles in the fluid between your joints to pop, Harvard Health explains. That’s what causes the sound we associate with cracking or popping.
The reason why it takes some time — typically about 20 minutes — before you’re able to crack the same joint again is because it takes some time for the gas bubbles to accumulate again in the joint.
Decades of studies have found no evidence that knuckle-cracking will cause arthritis. Studies haven’t found any evidence that knuckle-cracking is beneficial, either. The practice just doesn’t impact the development of arthritis.
The two forms of arthritis people are most familiar with are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. According to the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis is a disease in the joints where damage weakens bones in joints, deteriorates the connective tissue in joints and damages the joint lining. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where an overactive immune system attacks healthy tissue within the joints.
The common belief is that cracking your knuckles gradually wears on your joints to the point they become damaged, causing osteoarthritis.
But this isn’t true. Your genetics play the largest role in determining whether you’ll get osteoarthritis in the future, which typically doesn’t develop in people until they’re in their 40s or older, Houston Methodist Hospital says.
"The vast majority of arthritis patients have a genetic predisposition to the disease,” said John Fackler, an orthopedics and sports medicine doctor, in a Houston Methodist blog post. “However, if you have an injury when you're young or tear a ligament or meniscus, that puts you at higher risk for arthritis when you get older."
Many medical experts agree that cracking your knuckles won’t increase your risk of developing arthritis, including Tufts Medical Center, Harvard Health, Cleveland Clinic, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Although, if you already have osteoarthritis, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences adds that cracking your knuckles repeatedly could worsen symptoms. And Cedars-Sinai Medical Center adds that twisting and pressing the joint can aggravate other pre-existing conditions, too, such as trauma or gout.
There is less consensus on what other effects consistent, long-term knuckle-cracking may have on your hands outside of arthritis.
Cleveland Clinic explains that while a study from the 1990s found weaker hand grips and more hand swelling among people who regularly cracked their knuckles, a study from 2017 found no difference in grip strength between people who crack their knuckles and people who don’t.
“While the existing research on knuckle cracking is thin, the available evidence tells us that there are few if any long-term side effects to be concerned about,” Cleveland Clinic says.
Houston Methodist Hospital does note that in the short-term, cracking your knuckles may cause temporary swelling in your knuckles. Harvard Health and Cleveland Clinic also note that cracking your knuckles incorrectly — pulling or pressing with too much force, or bending your finger in the wrong direction — can cause injuries to the connective tissue in your joints or dislocate a finger, and those injuries can sometimes cause long-term damage to your joints. Prolonged swelling is a good indicator that you may have such an injury.
“You’ll know quickly if you’ve made a mistake because it’ll hurt, and cracking your knuckles isn’t supposed to hurt,” Cleveland Clinic says.