The old wives’ tale of cracking your knuckles will cause arthritis has been a topic of debate for quite some time. You hear mixed results from people saying cracking your knuckles do or do not cause arthritis, but no one seems to have a definitive answer. First of all, what exactly is the popping sound you hear when you do crack your knuckles? The sound we hear is actually gas leaving the joint space between the bones in our fingers. What happens is gas builds up within the joint space of our fingers, causing increased pressure. When we move our fingers in specific directions to “crack” our knuckles, we increase the length of the joint space, which causes a change in the pressure gradient. This change in pressure gradient causes the gas to leave the joint space, quickly creating an audible popping sound.

Now that we know what exactly is happening when we crack our knuckles, does is actually increase the risk of developing arthritis? Some research studies indicate the amount of force required to crack your knuckles is enough to cause articular cartilage damage, which can lead to osteoarthritis over time. However, other research studies have shown habitual knuckle cracking over a lifetime has a negative correlation of causing osteoarthritis. A study in 2011 reviewed survey responses and radiographs from 215 participants age ranging from 50-89 years old with and without osteoarthritis concerning how frequently they cracked their knuckles throughout their lifetime. The researchers also looked at other areas of interest, such as a family history of hand osteoarthritis, traumatic injuries, and history of heavy labor. After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded there was no increased risk of developing osteoarthritis even if you were a habitual knuckle cracker. There are numerous factors to consider when trying to determine what increases the risk of osteoarthritis not only for your hands but for any joint in the body. Factors to consider are a family history of osteoarthritis in the hands as some people may be more susceptible secondary to their genetics. Another factor to consider is any traumatic injuries such as broken bones as this has been shown to increase the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis. Lastly, performing heavy labor for numerous years has shown to increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis due to consistent excessive loading of the muscles and joint capsules within the hand.

Eric Whelan graduated from Concordia University (Portland, OR) with a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise Sports Science. He then went on to pursue his Doctor of Physical Therapy from Concordia University (Wisconsin).