Debunking Arthritis Myths: Can You Get Arthritis from Cracking your Knuckles and Neck?

Arthritis is a pervasive condition that affects millions of people all over the world, causing discomfort and stiffness in joints. While there is a plethora of information circulating about arthritis, there are also many myths and misconceptions. You’ve probably heard a family member tell you at least once in your life that cracking your knuckles will cause arthritis.

But, can you get arthritis from cracking your knuckles and neck? Our rheumatologists are here to debunk some common arthritis myths.

Understanding Arthritis

Arthritis, by definition, means “joint inflammation.” It is not one single disease, but more of an umbrella term that covers more than 100 different conditions that affect the muscles, bones, and joints.

Common arthritis symptoms include:

  • Stiff joints
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Diminished range of motion.

These symptoms can vary from mild to severe and may worsen over time. Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain, causing difficulty performing daily tasks such as walking and climbing stairs. When arthritis affects the hands, fine motor skills like gripping and pinching may be affected.

Types of Arthritis

Some of the more common types of arthritis include:

Osteoarthritis, a condition in which the cartilage located at the end of the bone on each joint starts to break down and become thin, is most commonly associated with joint cracking or knuckle cracking.  It is crucial to distinguish between the different types of arthritis to determine the true causes and risk factors associated with each condition.

Can You Get Arthritis from Cracking Your Knuckles?

One of the most well-known myths is that you can get arthritis from cracking your knuckles. The popping noise that occurs when you crack your knuckles or other joint is actually nitrogen bubbles bursting in your synovial fluid.

Synovial fluid lubricates our joints, like motor oil in a car’s engine, and reduces friction and preserves our cartilage. The bubbles pop when you stretch your neck or fingers, bending them backward or side to side, creating negative pressure. It is unclear whether the cracking noise is produced when the bubbles form or when the bubbles pop. It usually takes 15-20 minutes for the gas bubbles to dissipate and the joints to return to their normal positions. This is why you cannot crack the same joint twice in a row.

Research has been conducted comparing knuckle crackers to non-knuckle crackers and the rate of arthritis has been comparable. The Annals of the Rheumatic Disease Journal in 1990 investigated the relation of habitual knuckle cracking to hand arthritis or dysfunction. It was discovered that habitual knuckle cracking does not relate to osteoarthritis of the hands, but knuckle crackers were more likely to have hand swelling and lower grip strength than non-knuckle crackers.

In an article published by Houston Methodist Hospital in 2020, Dr. John Fackler, orthopedic surgeon at Houston Methodist found no long-term link between knuckle cracking and an increased risk of developing arthritis. The consensus is that, at most, habitual knuckle cracking can weaken grip strength.

While we have plenty of research surrounding the topic of knuckle cracking, neck cracking has not been extensively studied. There is currently no evidence that suggests neck cracking leads to arthritis. However, even though neck cracking is not known to be an arthritis hazard, if the movement causes pain or swelling, or the popping is audible every time you move your neck, a visit to your doctor is recommended. There is a chance that repetitive neck popping can cause inflammation around the nerves in your neck leading to more serious, long-term injuries.

Other Common Arthritis Myths and Misconceptions

In addition to neck and knuckle cracking, there are many other myths and misconceptions regarding arthritis, including:

Myth: Arthritis is Not Preventable

It is not possible to prevent arthritis in all cases as some risk factors such as advanced aging are inevitable. However, certain risk factors can be eliminated to prevent or slow the progression of arthritis.

The following are all ways individuals can help prevent arthritis:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Abstain from smoking tobacco
  • Protect joints during physical activity to avoid injury

Myth: People with Arthritis Should Not Exercise

Exercise is not generally an activity that people with arthritis need to avoid, although you should consult your doctor before beginning a new routine. Exercise can help maintain range of motion and strength in the joints. Low-impact exercise and arthritis can and should coexist as a method of treating osteoarthritis of the hips and knees. People with arthritis who exercise regularly may also notice improved sleep, which helps raise energy levels, lessens joint pain overall, and supports day-to-day joint function.

Myth: If Your Joints Hurt, it’s Arthritis

Not all joint pain is arthritis, and not all joint discomfort is a sign that arthritis will develop later in life. There are many causes of pain in and around the joints including bursitis, injury, and tendinitis. 

Bursitis causes painful swelling around the joints, but doesn’t affect the actual joints, rather the sacs of fluid surrounding the joints (bursa). Tendinitis is the inflammation of the tendons, the connective tissues that connect bone to muscles.

Both of these conditions are treatable and are not always linked to arthritis.

Maintaining Joint Health

Whether you have an existing arthritis condition or not, there are simple ways that you can protect your joints and reduce the risk of developing arthritis in the future. Individuals can take proactive steps such as exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, improving nutrition, and seeking professional advice to manage or prevent arthritis and joint pain.

Ultimately, it is not likely that you will develop arthritis from cracking your knuckles, despite the input you’ve heard from family and friends.

If you have arthritis of any type and want to discuss treatment options, or are concerned about your arthritis risk, Summit Rheumatology is accepting new patients. Give us a call at (480) 618-1192 or send us a message to schedule your appointment.