I have a routine when I get home from work:
Crack each toe, then my ankles, both knees, pelvic bone (a particularly good one), twist my lower back, both shoulders, my wrists, then every single joint in my hands. As you might imagine, some people find being around unbearable, while others squeal with jealousy and crave the same satisfaction.
The latter group is larger than you think: Up to 54 percent of people supposedly crack their fingers regularly. The sound itself is caused by a process in the joint called “cavitation,” where gas bubbles form in the viscous synovial fluid between the bones. Pulling the joint apart, as you do when you hyperflex a joint to crack it, causes a reduction in pressure in the synovial fluid, causing any gases dissolved in the fluid to come out of solution and combine to form a bubble, or “Cavity.” This bubbling is what causes the cracking sound.
Does cracking your joints actually cause long-term damage? Shutterstock
The fairy tale is as old as time: cracking joints is BAD FOR YOU! When I was growing up, my parents scolded me for cracking all my bones all the time, saying it would give me arthritis. Of course, I kept googling, because my short-term happiness always outweighs the long-term health issues. But does cracking your joints actually cause long-term damage?
“Any connections between joint cracks and conditions like arthritis are old wives tales.”
according to dr Kira Capozzolo, a licensed chiropractic physician and health professional, no it doesn’t.
“Joint cracking isn’t bad for you unless it’s done in a harmful way,” Capozzolo tells Inverse. “Knuckle-cracking is rarely harmful, but occasionally even a knuckle tear can be done incorrectly and lead to pain and inflammation and may even require correction. Any links between joint tears and diseases like arthritis are old wives’ tales. There were some very basic studies that were done years ago, but they weren’t well done and have been widely refuted ever since.”
At least cracking doesn’t lead to arthritis.Shutterstock
In fact, one study actually found increased thickness of the cartilage in the knuckle joints of those who cracked their knuckles compared to those who didn’t crack their knuckles. Arthritis and other joint diseases are generally associated with the deterioration of cartilage, causing pain in the joints, so these results suggest that tears at least do not lead to arthritis.
“Think of cracking knuckles like this fluffy hair.”
This may be a testament to the excitement I experience on a regular basis, but cracking my joints is the highlight of my day. There’s something so very satisfying about it; There’s almost a sense of great accomplishment when you crack a joint that hasn’t been cracked in a while, or when you find a new move that cracks a new joint. But what’s so fun about twisting our bones in weird directions until they break?
“Often it’s ASMR or habit,” says Dr. Capozzolo. “Often it’s some kind of stretching. People will crack their knuckles by stretching their arms and straightening their fingers. It’s a nice stretch to work with, others just crack their knuckles out of habit. There are many behaviors that people do that are impractical. I think of cracking knuckles something like hair throwing. The biggest benefit is an easy stress reliever. Like getting up and pacing, cracking your knuckles is similar.”
“I’ve had regular people come to me who can’t turn their heads or even get headaches that started when a friend thought they could break their necks.” Shutterstock
As anyone who spends an unhealthy amount of time on YouTube knows, cracking joints online is also very satisfying. There are tons of channels watching chiropractors do their thing, and millions of people around the world flock to watch hot women in gym leggings crack their bones. These videos have a very ASMR-like quality, with the soft spoken health chat and lo-fi white noise making for a relaxing and satisfying watch. However, the practice of chiropractic is somewhat controversial in the scientific community, with the legitimacy of its medical use being questioned.
dr Capozzolo, who is a chiropractor herself, says chiropractic care is only harmful when performed by someone who doesn’t have the appropriate training.
“If it’s not done right, it can be dangerous. Cracking a back or neck when done incorrectly can result in a lot of pain, damage, and inflammation. I’ve regularly had people come to me who can’t turn their heads or even get headaches that started with a friend thinking they could break their necks.”
Many physicians dismiss chiropractic and chiropractors because they are not qualified medical professionals, and although they undergo a long period of study before becoming licensed, they are technically classified as alternative medicine practitioners.
dr Joshua Carothers, chief medical officer at VIP StarNetwork, warns of the potential dangers of seeing a chiropractor.
“Most patients who seek chiropractic care and maintenance do so without incident or complication. However, there are known complications that can result from chiropractic manipulation of the spine and other areas of the body. Additionally, chiropractic education is not the same as that doctors receive in standard medical schools and training programs. This can lead to attempts to treat conditions with chiropractic care that would not respond to that care, and which can lead to misdiagnosis and delays in treatment.”
Don’t give your entire spine into someone else’s hands.Shutterstock
Oftentimes, online chiropractors combine their joint reshaping treatments with elements of other, more pseudoscientific medicine: “alkaline” diets, detoxification, herbal medicine, and even reshaping newborns’ spines — potentially injuring them seriously.
So, while the occasional cracking of homemade joints is probably perfectly harmless, don’t put your entire spine in someone else’s hands and let them knead you like bread dough without first consulting a qualified doctor. While these neck cracking videos look like bliss, I’m not going to let anyone turn my head around like Superman in that one movie just in case my legs spontaneously stop working. However, no one will ever stop me from cracking my own knuckles.
So if you’re ever on a plane and hear a cacophony of cracking joints, apologize in advance.