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Does Cracking Your Joints Cause Arthritis?

One question that I have been asked consistently over the last 10 years is:

“Does cracking your joints cause Arthritis?”

This is often asked by concerned parents who are worried about their child repeatedly cracking his/her back or fingers at the dinner table! I also get asked it by students themselves after being cautioned not to crack by a teacher or health professional.

  • What actually happens when you crack a joint?
  • Is this a bad thing?
  • Does it give you arthritis
  • Is it OK if done by a Chiropractor or Physiotherapist?
  • So what do you do when you simply must crack?

This video explains all about this sometimes very dangerous habit, and why cracking joints should be avoided as much as possible in most people.

“What actually happens when you crack a joint?”

There are various theories about this, as it is really hard to study what actually happens when you crack a joint. Obviously we don’t want to cut open a joint while someone is alive and awake, and if someone is under anaesthetic it’s hard to make joints crack! My understanding is that when a joint is stretched in a particular way the surfaces are pulled apart, creating a vacuum effect (similar to if you push a plunger against a flat surface and then pull it away). When the the joint gets stretched to a critical point, there is a release in the ligaments or capsule around the joint, to equalise the pressure. This usually happens through a separation or splitting of some of the fibers in the ligament.

Now this feels great, initially, as the joint often feel much freer and there is often much less tension in the surrounding tissues. However, I don’t recommend repeated cracking of the same joint, in the same way, as repeated manipulation of the same joint can cause over stretching of the ligament and make the joint unstable.

“Is this a bad thing? Does it give you arthritis?”

Which brings us to the point about Arthritis. While cracking joints does not specifically give you arthritis, if a joint is cracked repeatedly, and the ligaments get loose, this can make the joint unstable. Over time, an unstable joint will usually develop more wear and tear as it is moving more than it should, which can result in cartilage damage over time, ie Osteoarthritis.

“Is it ok if done by a Chiropractor or Physiotherapist?”

This is also the case if you are ever getting manipulated by a therapist, whether it is a Chiropractor, Osteopath or Physiotherpist. And let me clarify, I have nothing against specific manipulations of a single joint if it is required in treatment. In fact I perform probably about 5-10 single manipulations a year. However, I am against manipulating the same joint over and over again, or general, non specific manipulations that cause multiple cracks in several joints. If this kind of treatment is performed on a regular basis the joint can become very unstable.It is essential to always get treated by a qualified therapist, as if you simply rotate to crack your back, the loosest joints will go, often above or below the stiff joint.

“So, what do you do when you simply must crack?”

Well, as a reformed “cracker” I know how hard it is to go “cold turkey” especially if you are trying to stop cracking your back. I used to crack my back multiple times a day, and then when I started at university, all of my flatmates would love to practice on me as I made such a loud noise! However, after a few weeks (leading up to our practical exams) I started to get significant amounts of pain as my back became very unstable. It took me another 4 years to learn how to correctly stabilise my back so that I didn’t need to crack it.

Once I learnt how to correctly isolate and train the deep small muscles in my low back, to help support the very mobile ligaments I have there, I was able to maintain the mobility in the back, without the instability. I can now sit and stand for as long as I like without getting pain, and do whatever physical activities I choose to do, including some pretty extreme yoga postures!

I use any feeling that I want to crack my back now as a warning sign. If i am working all of my deep stabilising muscles properly, I simply don’t need to crack. If I do feel the need to crack it, I know that I need to be doing more specific stability work, and thankfully I now know what to do straight away. I have also discovered several stretches that really help release pressure that makes you want to crack your back, without the trauma of over stretching the ligaments.

“So what do I do now?”

If you frequently crack your back, or if it always feels like it needs to be done, then give us a call, and come in for a session with me or one of the other therapists here at Perfect Form Physio where we can teach you much safer ways of having a healthy and pain free back!

To book an appointment please call us on (02) 9922 7721 or email reception.

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If you do have a painful back, you may also like to watch our FREE 1/2 HOUR VIDEO ON BACK PAIN HERE

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