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Popping Jaws, Knees and Other Joints

Also Covers

Creaky Knees
Cracking Necks and Backs

Snap, Crackle, Pop and Other Assorted Sounds From Your Joints


Question: I have a lot of sounds that come from my joints. My back and neck creak and crack, my knees creak and many other joints make cracking, snapping and popping sounds. Do you know what causes this?

Answer: I used to have all of those problems with my joints, too. I live in a two story house. My knees would creak loudly every time I would go up or down the stairs. Family members could hear me coming before they could see me. My neck used to crack a lot and at times even made "crunchy" sounds. I was diagnosed with TMJ and my jaw would make popping sounds when I yawned or opened my mouth up wide. That was all pretty disturbing.

lifting weights for physical therapy  

Ironically, I actually developed many of my joint sounds from a harsh exercise routine given to me by a physical therapist.

I think now, after having silenced my joint sounds through trigger point therapy and yoga, that the different sounds are signs that your joints and bones have too much stress on them and are rubbing together in place they shouldn't and popping out of places they should be. I also suspect that in some cases the sounds occur because joints aren't being internally lubricated properly. (See my section on hyaluronic acid for more on joint lubrication.)

I asked a physical therapist about the crunchy neck sounds once and he said it was "normal". He told me that lots of his patients had that problem and that it didn't mean anything. Well, I don't think it is normal at all. I realize now that it was his treatments that actually caused the crunchy sounds in my neck. I believe that may be why so many of his patients had the same experiences. It wasn't because it was a normal condition, it was because the exercises he was prescribing were all causing the same types of problems by causing excessive muscular tension in many of his patients.

I suspect that some old school physical therapists, with their focus solely on strengthening muscles instead of lengthening and relaxing muscles (as occurs in yoga), are actually a cause of many joint problems. My back actually started making very loud "kerchunk" sounds at one point from physical therapy because the PT kept giving me back strengthening exercises when my back muscles were already overly tight and in spasm.

When I found a better physical therapist, and took up yoga and trigger point therapy, most of the snap, crackle and crunchy sounds all went away. My knees don't even creak anymore, and I had had that problem for decades. My younger son has a lot of cracking sound in his hands, and I think that is because he is always building projects with Lego which over stresses his hand and finger muscles. I'm trying to get him to do more stretching exercises. When he does hand stretching exercises, he can't crack his knuckles as often (something he likes to do).

I get a fair number of emails from people who develop assorted joint sounds after taking up a sport or new exercise or after going to the gym. Based on my experience, I would say those sounds are protest sounds from your joints letting you know that they are being over stressed. Take the commonly used phrase "Listen to your body" literally when you hear those sounds. Normal bodies shouldn't make sounds like a breakfast cereal.

Subluxation: partial dislocation (as of one of the bones in a joint)

from Merriam Webster

My joints also used to subluxate, meaning they would slip out of position. It's like a mild version of having a dislocated joint. For example, sometimes when I'd try to bend my thumb, it wouldn't bend because the joint had been pulled out of position slightly. Usually it would bend again after I wiggled it around a bit and then the joint would snap back into place. Other times it would go back into position on its own when I tried to bend it - but it would snap first. The snap was the joint snapping back to where it should be.

These days I don't have very many sounds coming from my joints at all. I think that is what is normal.

Here are some tips I've found helpful to reduce joint tension and minimize snap, crackle and popping sounds:

1. Try trigger point therapy to loosen up muscles and prevent them from pulling joints out of place. Trigger point therapy is an easy to do form of self massage that loosens up contraction points in tight muscles.

2. For jaw popping from TMJ pain, the book I found the best was Taking Control of TMJ. It is one of the few books on TMJ that takes a whole body approach to the disorder, keeping in mind the idea that where you hurt may not necessarily be the cause of your pain.

3. Besides trigger point therapy, another good way to relieve overall muscular tightness is yoga.

4. Eat a varied diet high in nutritious, whole foods, especially foods rich in magnesium. Magnesium is needed to relax muscles and is important for hyaluronic acid synthesis. Hyaluronic acid is used by the body to lubricate joints.

It helps to take frequent stretch breaks if you work at a desk all day long. business woman stretching in office chair Movement helps to keep your joints lubricated and free moving.

5. Keep moving throughout the day to keep your joints from stiffening up. This is easy to do if you work in a field like landscaping or cooking where you have to move as a part of your employment. It is a lot harder to do if you are a student or have an office job that requires you to sit in one place all day.

If you do have an office job, you just have to do what you can. Take frequent stretch breaks, go to the gym or go for a walk at lunch, etc.

6. Be careful with weight lifting, elliptical trainers, Stairmasters, calisthenics type exercises. Western medicine and fitness experts tend to emphasize the types of exercise that strengthen and tighten muscles. I'm not sure this is really healthy in the long run for all body types. Look at how often professional sports players in the U.S. are injured or need surgery repair broken body parts.

One of my kids was on the track team at school for awhile. I went to the awards dinner and it seemed like at least a third of the kids on the team had been out for most of the season with injuries. I understand many high school athletic coaches think that is normal, but maybe it is time to question the type athletic of training common in the U.S.

My body noises started going away when I focused more on exercises that involved less strain and more gentle movement like walking, dancing, yoga, etc. I also have a weighted hoola hoop for some variety. I would like to look more toned like I did when I went to the gym every day, but in the end for me it just wasn't worth the tight muscles, joint pain and creaky body. If you think you might have joint noises from chronically tight muscles, try to focus on Eastern forms of exercise that emphasize movement and joint freeing such yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong.

7. Keep an activity diary of when your creaks and pops are the loudest. I realized mine were worst after my physical therapy with a certain therapist. It took me awhile to grasp the fact that this advice that I was paying for from an expert was actually causing many of my issues. I later found a physical therapist who was knowledgeable and helped realign my body. However, he was more into yoga, stretching, posture, ergonomics than the calisthenics advocating therapist.



Related sections of interest:

Natural Treatments for Fibromyalgia

My Personal Causes of Neck Pain

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Defined

What Causes TMJ?

Finding a Good Physical Therapist


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