Whether you habitually “crack” your knuckles or your right knee “pops” every now and then, chances are you’re at least familiar with the sensation of a joint making a ridiculous sound, and then feeling a sweet, instant release of pressure. But what’s actually happening in the body when you crack a joint?First, think about how joints typically move. When you crack one of them, you’re essentially extending the joint beyond its normal range of motion, as SELF previously reported. When this happens, experts believe the gasses inside the fluid that lubricates the joint escape via small bubbles that burst, causing that signature cracking or popping sound.This isn’t the only thing that can produce sounds in your body, though. “Tendons or ligaments gliding over bony surfaces can reproduce a similar type of sound,” Elizabeth Nguyen, MD, a physiatrist board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, tells SELF. People who have arthritis may also hear noises sometimes due to bone-on-bone friction, she adds.Questions about whether joint popping is good or bad for you have prevailed for years. If you constantly crack your fingers, you’ve probably had someone tell you the habit can cause arthritis—a claim that has been proven false, Dr. Nguyen says. Still, it’s easy to wonder if cracking your joints over and over and over again is harmful in any way—especially if you consistently feel the need to release the sensation of pressure in your knuckles, knees, neck, back, or anywhere really.Below, experts break down why all of this feels so dang good—and whether a cycle of cracking your joints is really something to be concerned about.Why does cracking a joint feel so good?Popping or cracking a joint can help relieve tension that builds up due to lack of movement, Drew Schwartz, DC, a chiropractic physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. “Your body loves movement,” he explains. “The more it can move, the better it feels.” A muscle imbalance—which occurs when one set of muscles becomes weaker than its opposing side of muscles—could also factor into this tension build-up.“The pop feels good because [the joint] gets movement there, but the tension will come back after the pop. It only feels good for a second,” Schwartz explains, adding, “It can be habit forming because there is some satisfaction to it.”Of course, cracking your joints isn’t a long-term solution if any area of your body is consistently feeling stiff, Schwartz cautions, and it shouldn’t be done if you’re feeling legit pain. Ultimately, if you feel regular pressure, tightness, or pain in a certain area of your body, you may need to be evaluated by a medical professional, Dr. Nguyen says, especially if it starts to interfere with your daily life. “In those situations, there may be an underlying issue,” she adds.So… should I stop cracking my joints?Once you’re in the routine of cracking your joints, it can be difficult to snap out of it. But, to be clear, you’re not necessarily hurting anything. So, as long as you’re not feeling any pain from it, you don’t technically need to stop if you don’t want to, Tamara Huff, MD, FAAOS, an orthopedic surgeon at Vigeo Orthopedics, tells SELF. (If it does start to feel uncomfortable in any way, you should absolutely stop.)
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Ever woken up to the soft rumble of a thunderstorm and a that-wasn’t-there-last-night ache in your knees or wrists? If you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis—an umbrella term for conditions that affect the joints, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis—the answer is likely yes. And when this happens, there’s a good chance you’ve asked yourself, “Does weather affect arthritis?” Or, maybe you’re already familiar with how weather changes affect your pain levels. But what exactly does the science say?Well, according to 2015 research published in The Journal of Rheumatology, there is a relationship between joint pain and weather changes in many people with arthritis.1 However, this relationship is multi-faceted, and isn’t as simple as saying one type of weather makes arthritis pain worse. In fact, there are a few weather-related factors that could be to blame for an increase in your arthritis symptoms.Ahead, we’ll explore how various weather conditions and changes can affect arthritis pain, as well as how to handle weather-related joint pain if it strikes.How do changes in weather affect arthritis?It’s not just that weather can affect arthritis, it’s the change in weather that can trigger symptoms. Differences in temperature (changes from warm to cold), precipitation (particularly cold, rainy weather), and increasing humidity (both when it’s cold and hot) all seem to play the most significant role in setting off aches and pains.In that same 2015 study published in The Journal of Rheumatology, more than 800 participants with osteoarthritis were asked to record their pain levels over the course of a year using two-week pain calendars. Participants reported experiencing the most pain when the weather was rainy or increasingly humid—especially when the temperature outside was colder than usual.1Since arthritis triggers aren’t the same for everyone, it’s always a good idea to keep note of how certain weather conditions and weather changes affect your pain levels. Then, you can talk with your doctor about a treatment plan that takes weather changes into consideration.Back to topWhat kind of weather makes arthritis worse?While research on the link between arthritis and weather is still limited, current studies suggest that there are a few different weather patterns that can have a worsening effect on arthritis pain.Cold temperatures with high humidityLower temperatures during colder months are often reported to be a cause of increased joint pain in people with arthritis. “Generalized joint pain, more specifically in the knees, is a common complaint that we hear during fall and winter seasons,” Lauren Farrell, MSPT, a physical therapist and clinic director of Professional Physical Therapy in Hoboken, New Jersey, tells SELF.But what is it about the colder months that seems to aggravate arthritis pain? One 2020 study published in Pain Research and Management suggests that, surprisingly, an increase in humidity levels may be to blame. In this particular study, self-reported joint tenderness and pain in participants with rheumatoid arthritis (R.A.) were directly connected to increased humidity levels during winter.2You might not associate humidity with teeth-chattering weather (tropical rainforests typically come to mind), but an increase in humidity can actually make frigid temperatures feel even colder. This, in part, explains why people with arthritis might notice more pain during those damp, cold days associated with the Southeastern areas of the United States, as opposed to dry, cold weather in the Southwest. However, experts also believe that this increased pain might have to do with the way that blood flows through the body when we’re cold.“The research suggests that in colder weather, the body will conserve heat, and it will send more of the blood to the organs in the center of the body, like the heart or the lungs,” Armin Tehrany, MD, orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care, tells SELF. “So, when that happens, the arms, legs, shoulders, knee joints—those blood vessels will constrict,” he says. Less blood flow makes those areas colder and stiffer, which can cause discomfort and pain in people with arthritis.Another theory about why the cold seems to trigger those aches and pains? Cold air can make our muscles and ligaments tense up, leading to more stiffness and pain in the joints, according ot the Cleveland Clinic.Rain and barometric pressure in warmer monthsWinter isn’t the only season that can cause a flare-up of arthritis symptoms, though. For some people, changes in temperature, rain levels, and even air pressure during the spring and summer months can cause increased joint tenderness and pain, too.
There’s nothing like a good snap, crackle, and pop first thing in the morning. (No, we’re not talking about those cute little elves with the cereal.) We’re talking about the glorious feeling of cracking your back—well, for some people at least.It sounds like a painful pastime, but cracking your back can feel really good, whether it’s the first thing you do when hopping out of bed or you use it as a stress reliever after a long day at your desk. You’ve probably been doing it for years, but have you ever stopped to think, “What happens when you crack your back?”The good news is it’s pretty clear you’re not actually hurting your spine, even if it may sound like it. “Cracking your back is very common,” Ferhan Asghar, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at UC Health, tells SELF. What’s oddly not so clear (there’s still quite a bit of scientific debate on this topic) is what actually produces that cracking noise and feeling of sweet, sweet relief. But before we get into all the theories about cracking your back, let’s go through a quick anatomy lesson.First, what does the spinal cord do?In order to understand what happens when you crack your back, it’s important to know a bit about how your back is put together. The star of the show is your spine, which is located down the center of your back. You can think of it as “the scaffolding for the entire body,” according to Cedars-Sinai Spine Center. Your spine protects your spinal cord, a bundle of nerves that transmit messages between your brain and pretty much every part of your body. With the help of vertebrae, or interlocking bones, it also supports about half the weight in your body. The average person is born with 33 vertebrae, but most adults only have 24 since some of the lower ones fuse together over time.Your vertebrae are divided into sections: your cervical spine (hi, neck bones), your thoracic spine (the upper part of your back), your lumbar spine (lower back), your sacrum (this joins with your pelvis), and your coccyx (a funny way to say tailbone). Your vertebrae connect with each other at the back via flexible joints, and rubbery cushions known as discs are in between each one to provide some cushioning. Finally, your vertebrae connect with muscles, ligaments, and tendons throughout your back to help you do everything from explosive burpees during your HIIT workout to leaning over to give your cat a goodnight nuzzle.Back to topWhat happens when you crack your back?“There are a number of theories on why this happens, but nobody really knows,” Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, tells SELF. If that’s not the answer you were hoping for, fear not, there are some pretty interesting theories about back cracking.The most widely accepted one involves pockets of gas that like to hang out in your joints. We’re not talking about the same kind of gas that escapes from your body after eating a particularly bean-heavy chili (though that can be similarly satisfying to cracking your back). This gas comes from a lubricant inside your joints known as synovial fluid—which contains oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide—that helps give nutrients to the cartilage in your joints to help them glide smoothly. When you apply force to your joints, those gases are rapidly released, according to the Library of Congress.The thinking is that as these gases shift during an extreme stretch, they emit a cracking noise as they dissipate, Dr. Anand says. The existence of this gas isn’t up for debate—it actually shows up on X-rays and MRIs before surrounding tissues quickly reabsorb it after you crack your back, Lisa A. DeStefano, D.O., chairwoman of the Department of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF. However, whether that “pop” sound is caused by the gas bubbles themselves or something else is hotly debated. Researchers who published a 2015 study in PLOS One argue it’s the latter. That’s because when they examined MRIs of knuckles cracking, they discovered the sound actually happens when a gas-filled cavity forms as the joints stretch, not when the gas bubbles themselves collapse.1