Patients often wonder whether popping knuckles causes arthritis later in life. There is no evidence to show this to be true. However, repeated joint popping can lead to hyper-mobility which means the ligaments supporting the joint have become stretched out. Without the support of the ligaments, the joint becomes more vulnerable to injury.
This can also be true in the neck and back. Frequent popping and aggressive stretching of the spinal joints can lead to excessive joint motion. In some cases this is a good thing, such as for gymnasts and dancers who require greater flexibility and range of motion in their muscles and joints. These individuals usually have strong core muscles to support their spine in place of the ligaments. However, later in life these individuals’ core muscles may weaken but the spinal joints still remain hyper-mobile. As the back then sustains significant forces from lifting with poor mechanics, pregnancy, or poor sustained postural habits, etc, pain may develop. It may still feel good to pop a joint that is hyper-mobile due to the endorphin release that occurs with it, but the relief will be temporary and it will ultimately perpetuate the problem. Any person with an excessively flexible spine at one or more spinal segments is susceptible to this type of back pain. Low back hyper-mobility is particularly common because the lumbar spine is not supported by the adjacent rib joints of the mid/upper back. For an individual with spine hyper-mobility, it is important to maintain extremely strong core muscles, especially if the individual’s lifestyle or vocation requires repeated stress to the low back.
Many people have joints (such as the ankle or knee) which frequently give off a popping sound or sensation with movement. Generally, if no pain accompanies the popping it is not of concern. If the popping becomes excessive and the joint does not feel stable during activity, it may need to be strengthened or temporarily braced.