Cracking joints can be a very satisfying feeling, but exactly what causes it and the effects it can have on your body have long been shrouded in mystery. Although many people enjoy the sensation of cracking their joints, and even claim that it provides them with relief from discomfort, there are those who allege that doing so can have unintended consequences, such as arthritis.
The technical term for joint-cracking is “crepitus”, which can be defined as a popping sound accompanied by a crunching sensation. In the past, theories as to what caused crepitus included ligaments being overstretched, joint adhesions being broken, and the popping of air bubbles within the joints. In more recent years, the general consensus has shifted towards the bubble-pop theory although further research is needed before this can be confirmed as the cause.
These bubbles form and collapse in synovial fluid, which is used to lubricate the cartilage within the joint. Although a 2015 study observed bubbles in the synovial fluid after they were cracked, suggesting it was the formation of the bubbles that made the sound, a follow up study suggested otherwise. This study claimed that the bubbles observed in the 2015 research were the remnants of a larger bubble that had partially collapsed, resulting in several smaller bubbles.
One of the most common claims surrounding joint-cracking is that it will lead to arthritis, but this theory has been more-or-less completely debunked. While it may be possible that knuckle-cracking could lead to reduced grip strength, even this potential side-effect is hotly disputed. But when it comes to back-cracking, people are understandably a little more concerned about the possible side-effects. Fortunately, research tells us that these fears appear to be unfounded, although that does not mean the activity is completely risk-free.
The desire to crack our backs usually comes from a slight misalignment of the joints, which can cause the surrounding muscles to stiffen. When done by a professional, back-cracking can actually be quite useful in both providing temporary pain-relief, and improving joint mobility, which can help make exercise more effective. The risk of someone cracking their own back or the back of someone else is that they may overextended the joint. This would result in hypermobility, where joints extend beyond their normal range of motion, making it much easier to sustain an injury after the cracking.
Overall, back-cracking is not a dangerous activity, and will usually amount to little more than short-term pain relief and satisfaction. However, it is important to consider any potential underlying causes. If you regularly feel the need to crack your back, or frequently experience either a dull ache or stiffness in the area, then it is possible that you are suffering an unidentified issue, such as damaged cartilage or low levels of synovial fluid.
While the occasional crack is perfectly normal, anyone who cracks their back several times a day should seek the advice of a professional. If there is an underlying issue, this can be addressed before it deteriorates. If not, you can work with the professional on an exercise routine to restore normal levels of alignment and flexibility, and hopefully reduce the number of times you feel the need to crack your back in the first place.