We’ve heard it our whole lives: Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis. For those of us who never kicked the habit (about 25% to 54% of Americans, according to one study), it’s a real fear as we get older. But is cracking your knuckles actually bad for you? We called up Dr. Rey Ramirez, a hand surgeon at Yale School of Medicine, to help us crack the case.
Does cracking knuckles cause arthritis?
Dr. Ramirez says cracking your knuckles probably doesn’t damage your joints. And the research around knuckle-cracking has been mixed: A 1990 study found that knuckle-cracking may be linked to hand swelling and a weakened grip strength. One 2017 study found an association between knuckle-cracking and increased metacarpal head cartilage thickness. (Which can be an early sign of osteoarthritis.) Other research, like a 2011 study, found no correlation between knuckle-cracking and arthritis. Some even found that knuckle-cracking increased joint range of motion. And, taking matters into his own hands, one doctor spent 50 years cracking the knuckles in his left hand only. He left his right hand alone. After 50 years, he reported no difference between his hands.
Part of what makes it hard to determine if knuckle-cracking causes arthritis is "we don't really understand really well why people get arthritis," Dr. Ramirez acknowledges. "We just use our hands for so many things that it's hard to pinpoint knuckle-cracking as making a difference." Plus, there’s one more plot hole: “A common location people get [hand arthritis] is at joints at the tips of their fingers, which no one cracks.”
So should I stop cracking my knuckles?
Depends on how your hands feel and your general joint health. Is it painful to pop them, or is there swelling around your knuckles? Then it’s probably a good idea to stop and make an appointment with your doctor — because those could be signs that something else is going on.
Even if it doesn’t definitively cause arthritis, your knuckles might not love the cracking. They may still get sore from the stress of pushing them, says Dr. Ramirez. In short, there may not be much risk to popping your knuckles…but you may not benefit from it, either.
How do I prevent arthritis in my hands?
Arthritis often comes with age. If and when you develop it may involve a lot of personal factors. Like your genetics, previous injuries, or chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes. That said, you may be able to reduce your risk by taking care of your hands now. Some ways you can do that are:
Not smoking, which may contribute to cartilage loss.
Eating nutritious foods, which can help prevent inflammation.
Maintaining a healthy weight to reduce stress on your joints.
Practicing hand exercises to improve hand function and strengthen the muscles.
The biggest risk of cracking your knuckles may be making the people around you squirm. But the research around whether it could actually cause arthritis is still unclear — so pop at your own risk.
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