Lets begin by saying, before we say anything else, that if you crack your knuckles you are probably driving the people around you crazy. But is knuckle cracking harmful? Truthfully, its hard to say. The jury is still out.
What Mom Said
Your mother probably told you that cracking your knuckles would cause brain damage. That is not true. She may have also told you that it would cause you to develop arthritis in later life, and honestly, that theory has been debated to death. The conventional wisdom today is that it likely wont. But are those maddening clicks and pops anything more than an annoyance? Lets talk about your knuckles.
What are Knuckles?
Your knuckles are the joints in your fingers (and also in your toes, for that matter) that are located where the bones meet. They contain a liquid, synovial fluid, that lubricates them. Occasionally, a gas bubble occurs in the synovial fluid, and when the joint moves in a certain way, that bubble bursts and makes a cracking or popping sound.
Now, about arthritis. It is a common problem in older adults. In fact, most people over the age of 65 have at least some form of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common form, and it is caused by ordinary wear and tear on your joints. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is due to joint inflammation, and it can ultimately cause joint deformity and loss of function.
Is There a Connection?
The current research suggests that there is no connection between cracking your knuckles and developing arthritis. On the other hand, think about what we just said about wear and tear. Constant knuckle cracking is almost certainly going to cause wear and tear on the joints. Whether it is sufficient to cause arthritis is still up for debate. It doesnt seem unreasonable to think that prolonged knuckle cracking could lead to trouble in the joints, but how much does it take? Also, many people develop arthritis, and many people crack their knuckles. What is cause, and what is effect? Or is there any correlation at all? No one really knows.
In 1975, Drs. Robert and Stuart Swezey studied 28 nursing home residents who may or may not have cracked their knuckles – most of them couldnt remember. They x-rayed the subjects hands, and decided that there was no link between arthritis and knuckle cracking. Heres the thing, though – how do you determine cause and effect when your subjects cant even remember if they cracked their knuckles?
Another study, possibly more reliable, was published in the Annals of Rheumatic Disease. It evaluated a group of 300 known knuckle crackers. None of them developed arthritis. They did, however, experience less strength in their hands, and were more likely to have swelling in the hands. Again, though, whether knuckle cracking caused hand problems, or people with hand problems were more likely to crack their knuckles was left open to interpretation.
The Final Word
Dont crack your knuckles. It might not make a bit of difference, according to studies. But why not err on the side of caution?