Joints can make peculiar noises. They can snap, pop, crack, grind, grate, click and clunk. The proper name for these noises is crepitus. Many people become understandably nervous about this, especially if it is a “new noise.” Although crepitus is generally unwelcome, it is not as scary as you think.
When people come to physiotherapy for joint noises they generally have similar concerns. They want to know what is causing the noise and how to stop it.
The general perception people have is their joint must now be degenerated and “bone on bone.” People take this as a sign of aging and extreme arthritis and become scared for their joints. They do not want to unnecessarily wear the joints down.
So what do they do? They avoid the noise! They stop climbing stairs and getting down on the ground to play with their kids and grand kids. They tell me they have stopped doing the movement that initiates the noise in order to “preserve” the joint or avoid “making it worse.”
My response to these clients is always the same - I ask:
“Does it hurt when it clicks?”
Because here is the thing. There are many causes for crepitus. And yes, some of them require treatment, but many do not! Before anything else, we need to figure out what is causing the clicking and decide if we have to be concerned about it or not.
Most snaps, crackles and pops are pain free and totally harmless.
If you do not experience pain when your joint makes a noise you don’t have to worry about it and can continue with business as usual.
Common Causes of Crepitus
- The most common culprit is gas bubbles popping within the joint (think cracking knuckles). When the joint is stretched and released a gas bubble is formed and then pops, causing the noise.
- The crepitus could also be a tendon or ligament snapping over a bony structure. In this case there might be pain, but it has nothing to do with the joint and a whole lot more with the muscle. This would require an assessment, range of motion and strength exercises from a physiotherapist.
Arthritis. Yes, sometimes crepitus is because of arthritis. But please know that the clicking or grinding does not mean you are doing “extra damage” to the joint. If you have arthritis a primary goal is to maintain range of motion. Working through your available range should be a priority rather than being avoided. If your knees are a little extra talkative but you have no pain and no decrease in function I would encourage you to continue with your activities. There are so many benefits to exercise (cardiovascular, mental, general strength, etc.) and it would be a shame to throw all of those away because of a misconception that you had about your noisy hips, knees or ankles.
In regards to your knees…
If you’re wondering what that noise is and what’s causing it, here’s our top three noises people complain of and what they could mean (please be aware that this is a gross generalization but is meant to give you a decent idea):
- Snapping, cracking or clicking “outside” of your knee: This is often due to the patellofemoral joint. The patella (aka kneecap) lives in a little groove that it is supposed to glide up and down in when your knee bends and straightens. If the patella is not properly aligned (maybe from an injury or muscle imbalance) it can make noise as you crouch, use the stairs, or just with bending and straightening your knee. If these noises are inconsistent, occasional, and pain-free I would not worry. If they are constant and painful then seeing a physiotherapist can be very helpful.
- Snapping, cracking, or clicking “inside of your knee”: This is often your meniscus, which is the cartilage shock absorber within the joint. With injury or degeneration over time this structure can tear, rip or peel back. In some cases a flap of cartilage can get caught out of place and this will often cause the joint to “lock.” If you have a click within your knee that causes a sharp pain and sometimes causes the joint to lock it is likely a meniscus problem and you should visit a physiotherapist.
- Creaking or grinding: This is most often associated with arthritis. If it is early stages and you are noticing some pain it is definitely worth a trip to your neighborhood physiotherapist as an arthritis management plan can significantly impact the maintenance of range of motion, strength and function in the joint.
Again, if you experience these noises, it’s always good to have us check it out. We will assess your joint range of motion, muscle strength and balance, and see if we can identify the cause for the click so we can come up with a treatment plan that will work for you!