Ankles that crack. Shoulders that pop. Knees that creak. Our bodies can make some pretty unpleasant noises, especially when we’re working out. While most of those sounds are harmless, it’s important to understand what causes them, how we can protect our joints, and when we should be worried.
Why Your Body Makes Those Noises
The medical term for joint noises is crepitus, which describes creaking, cracking, squeaking, or any other sound coming from your joints as you work out. Sometimes these noises are muffled and barely audible. Other times, your workout buddies will stop mid-rep to check on you because they heard your knee pop from the other side of the gym.
Crepitus can occur in any joint, but it’s most common in your knees, hips, shoulders, and spine.
The noises you hear happen for a few different reasons:
- Air bubbles forming and popping inside your joints
- Tendons or ligaments snapping on top of a joint’s bone structure
- Tight muscles that prevent the joints from moving freely
- Arthritis that causes cartilage damage, causing bones to rub against each other, causing pain and noise
Noisy joints are just a part of life. Certain exercises or movements might make them worse, and we all have body parts that are more prone to cracking, creaking, and squeaking.
Most Joint Sounds Are Normal
While it can be disconcerting to hear your joints popping away as you work out, those sounds are generally harmless. In most cases, these noises don’t cause pain, or you might feel mild, short-term pain. And even though your shoulder cracks might turn heads at the gym, they’re usually quite innocent. In fact, cracking your neck or popping your knuckles might even provide some relief (side note: despite what your mom told you as a kid, popping your knuckles does not cause arthritis!).
As you age, those sounds might become more common. That’s because aging bodies are more prone to arthritis and other joint disorders. As arthritis develops, our cartilage degenerates, lessening the barrier between bones. As joints lose their cartilage, you will likely notice more creaking and cracking, especially during physical activity.
If you want to prevent joint damage and the potential for pain, get up and get moving. “Motion is lotion,” as the saying goes: activity lubricates our joints, preventing them from deteriorating. You have probably noticed that your joints get stiffer and more painful if you are sedentary for long periods of time. Though your body might make some strange noises during your workout, activity is truly the best way to keep those joints healthy.
And while you’re at it, do some stretches. Keeping those muscles loose ultimately protects your joints and can reduce that unpleasant commotion.
When You Should Be Concerned
If those snaps, cracks, and pops are accompanied by pain or swelling, that could indicate a more serious problem. While mild, short-term pain is common immediately following popping or cracking noises, moderate or severe pain, or pain that persists, should be checked out by a medical professional.
And even if you don’t have pain now, regular popping, cracking, or creaking in your joints might be a precursor to a health problem down the line. Many people diagnosed with osteoarthritis report experiencing noisy joints in the years before the diagnosis. So, if your knees talk back when you’re doing those squats, you might want to keep an eye out for symptoms of arthritis.
If you have any concerns about your joints – or the noises they are making – talk with your doctor.