Questions and Answers

Can You Get Arthritis from Cracking or Popping Your Knuckles?

Popping your Knuckles
Photo by [krosseel] morgueFile
Ahh what a relief it is to crack those knuckles. Popping knuckles is something a large percentage of the population does on a daily basis. Have you ever heard that doing this will cause you to get arthritis?

According to a massive 50 year long study performed by California allergist Donald Unger, cracking or popping your knuckles will not lead to arthritis. His Nobel Prize winning study consisted of him administering approximately 36,000 knuckle cracks on his left hand and none on his right hand over the 50 year study to make this determination.

I can’t exactly remember when I first cracked my knuckles, but I vaguely remember as a kid it was something of an ambition to be able to pop them.  Seemed like the cool thing to do, after all kids love a good noise.

For many years, doctors were telling patients that the advice given by their mothers about cracking knuckles leading to arthritis was in fact true. As the instructions went, “Don’t pop your knuckles or you could develop arthritis later on in life.

The Science of Popping Your Knuckles

The reasoning behind the myth of developing arthritis by popping your knuckles is an easy one to understand.

Joints by nature will begin getting noisier as we get older. They will begin to crack and pop on us and it’s just one of nature’s signs that we are getting older.

So doctors would take these symptoms are reverse the cause and effect which led to the conclusion, popping your knuckles or cracking your joints would speed up the process. This of course could only lead to arthritis later in life.

Parental Myth of Cracking your Knuckles

Of course kids running around cracking their knuckles all day would get very annoying to a parental figure. So in an effort to silence the air, parents took this apparent medical advice and used it on their children. It’s somewhat similar to telling your kids, “Don’t eat the watermelon seeds or they’ll eventually sprout out your ears.

Why do Knuckles Pop

So now that we’ve uncovered the myth itself, let’s talk about what is really happening when you pop your knuckles.

Many doctors believe that popping knuckles is caused from the shifting of a lubricating liquid called synovial fluid. The synovial fluid surrounds the joints in your fingers and is meant to lubricate the joints for smoother action.

When the finger or joint is extended, the pressure inside your fingers will get lower and the gases that are present like carbon dioxide will be released in the form of a bubble.

The bubble will then collapse so rapidly that it emits a popping sound that is loud enough to hear. But according to X-rays taken shortly after a good knuckle popping, there are many smaller bubbles that will continue to hang around for up to twenty minutes after the fact.

Eventually these extra smaller bubbles will be absorbed back into the synovial fluid, thus preventing a second pop within a short time span.

Can Knuckle Popping Cause Arthritis

So to get straight to the point on whether popping your knuckles can lead to arthritis let’s take a look at an unusually long study performed by Donald Unger.

Donald Unger, an allergist from California, was determined to either prove or disprove this myth due to being pestered all his life by family to stop cracking his knuckles.

So he dedicated his life to his experiment. He actually spent the next fifty years popping the knuckles of his left hand at least twice a day, while leaving the right hand alone. How we was able to do this I’ll never understand, it would drive me crazy only being able to pop the knuckles of one hand.

Fast forwarding to 36,000 knuckle cracks later, Unger discovered that he hadn’t developed arthritis in either of his hands. His study was eventually published in Arthritis & Rheumatism magazine and Unger won an “Ig Nobel Prize” in 2009 for his dedicated study.

During the ceremony for accepting his award he let out a cry, “Mother, you were wrong!”

So I hope this has helped in clearing up the myth that cracking or popping your knuckles will lead to arthritis later in life. Although it’s probably not the best etiquette, I don’t think you have to worry about increasing your chances of arthritis.

Similar Posts

10 thoughts on “Can You Get Arthritis from Cracking or Popping Your Knuckles?
  1. One of these wonderful trivial subjects that I have always wanted to know the medical answer to. My Chiropractor told me about the Gas Bubble explanation, but does the act of exploding those bubbles ease arthritis? You would think that an ongoing movement of knuckles (And I remember my mom doing it to her ankles while ironing, when I was a kid.), would be good ‘exercise’, even if it’s just a local one.

    1. Well Marion, I for one really enjoy a good knuckle popping 🙂 Personally I don’t think there’s much harm in it. Not only that, but the only way to know is to wait until old age has set in, and by that time the arthritis could of been caused by any number of contributing factors. Still it’s amazing the controlled experiment that Donald Unger put himself through in the name of science. Pretty definitive results if you ask me!

  2. It helped me out really. I didn’t knew about knucles. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. “Mother you were wrong” lol i too have been popping my knuckles since 9 or 10 yrs old, now in my early 50’s & no arthritis (apart from that caused by a mc accident) so after reading this i can say the above at our family sunday dinner tomoz, lol..
    Another great blog mrT 🙂

    1. haha, that’s too funny Kevin… Hopefully I haven’t started any family fueds lol. All jokes aside, I appreciate you introducing your findings with the blog. Most times these personal studies never reach the public ear, but this is a great place to let the world know that they can’t pull the wool over our eyes anymore! I too have heard all my life that popping knuckles would lead to all sorts of arthritic problems later in life, but it’s nice to know that simply isn’t true. Especially since I myself am an avid knuckle cracker as well ! 😀

  4. Robert Tuttlegreat post,thanks for sharing.One of these magnificent paltry subjects that I have for the longest time been itching to know the restorative response to. My Chiropractor let me know about the Gas Bubble clarification, however does the demonstration of blasting those air pockets ease joint pain? You would believe that a progressing development of knuckles (And I recollect my mother doing it to her lower legs while pressing, when I was a child.), would be great \’activity\’, regardless of the fact that its simply a nearby one.

    1. Thank you for the response Steven.

      Logic tells me that if there is something creating pressure between your joints, ie. gas bubbles, and you release said pressure. It stands to reason that would certainly bring some form of relief.

      That being said, I also believe that if you do anything enough times it could potentially create a need. At the very least it may increase the production and certainly the rate at which the gas bubbles would form.

      So I guess it’s a trade off. A little relief, but at the same time the need for that relief increases over time.

  5. That is good to know that it doesn’t really cause arthritis. It may help though, so I would talk to my chiropractor about it. Good on this guy for having the patients to do the experiment, for I too would be driven mad to not pop one of my hands.

    1. No kidding, this guy had some hardcore dedication to maintain an experiment for as long as he did!

Comments are closed.