Why do people crack their knuckles? It's a harmless habit, but one that can irritate others, says GEETA PADMANABHAN, suggesting how it can be overcome
In our household, cracking knuckles was a sin. Many other things were forbidden too, and we siblings got into the habit of closing a fist and pressing the joints if mom popped in when we were breaking a rule. Cracking knuckles was our defence mechanism — our admission of guilt and an outlet for stress. Mom banned it — “Are you cursing me?” she asked. “And it’s not good for your hands!”
As an adult, I see knuckle-cracking all the time. My helper pulls each finger backwards till she hears the “pop” sound. An aunt presses the finger-joints close to the palm and seems comforted by the “tick”. A colleague bends her fingers into a tight fist, and gets a multitude of cracking sounds. Assistants at beauty parlours crack toes after pedicures. If you believe the studies, some 45 per cent are given to making that noise, and men are more likely to do it than women. Some have confessed it’s a nervous habit, others have claimed it brings relief from finger stiffness.
Why it happens
Why do joints go “click”? When we pull the bones apart, we stretch the joint capsule that contains the synovial fluid lubricating our tendons and joints. Gases dissolved in the fluid form microscopic bubbles which merge into large ones and pop when additional fluid rushes in to fill the enlarged space. Since you don't repeat the cracking session immediately, the space in the joint returns to its original size, more gases dissolve in the fluid, bubbles form and are ready to burst.
Some believe this is wear-and-tear that could end in arthritis. A well-known study on this was done by the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize winner Dr. Donald Unger who cracked the knuckles of his left hand twice a day for 60+ years, leaving his right knuckles un-cracked. His conclusion? “I'm looking at my fingers, and there is not the slightest sign of arthritis in either hand.”
In 1975, 28 residents in a Los Angeles nursing home were checked for habitual knuckle-cracking. The result said habitual knuckle-crackers were less likely to suffer osteoarthritis in their hands later on. In Detroit in 1990, researchers examined the hands of three hundred people over the age of 45. Knuckle-snappers appeared to have a grip that wasn’t as strong, and 84 per cent of them had signs of swelling in their hands. But this could indicate a predisposition to problems later on. It’s possible that people who already have arthritis sometimes find their joints crack because the cartilage of the joints has been damaged. This is a consequence of damage, not the cause. Well, you could injure your thumb or sprain a finger ligament while cracking, but that's rare. The LA nursing home had the final word on this: “The chief morbid consequence of knuckle-cracking would appear to be its annoying effect on the observer.”
Does it lead to arthritis?
Dr. Anthony Komaroff, MD, Harvard Medical School was once asked: “My husband cracks his knuckles constantly. I find it annoying, but can knuckle-cracking lead to arthritis or other problems?” His reply: “That “popping” noise that irritates you... may well be music to his ears. For those who don’t crack their knuckles, the appeal can be hard to understand. I passed on your question to my colleague Dr. Robert Shmerling, an arthritis specialist. This is what he said. While knuckle-cracking can be annoying, it seems to be harmless. The same is generally true of other joint-related noises such as popping, crackling or snapping, as long as no pain accompanies it. Does your husband have pain and a grinding sound when he flexes his knuckles? Do any of his fingers lock or give way? These red flags could be a sign of a more serious problem that may need medical attention.”
Want to shake off the wince-inducing habit? Try these. Set reminders so you're aware when you pop. Reward yourself when you resist it. Learn a hobby that keeps your hands (and mind) busy. Drawing, writing, arts and crafts, knitting — choose. Carry some lotion around. When you feel the urge to pop your knuckles, get it out and rub it on your hands. It will moisturise them and help you stop your knuckle-popping habit.
“Stop cracking your knuckles!” I can hear mom say. Now I know why. Mom was simply annoyed by the noise, just as I am.
CRACK THE PROBLEM
* Discover the source of the anxiety. Try to find what you were worrying about while cracking.
* Avoid nagging. Constant complaining to a knuckle-popper might lead to more stress, and more cracking.
* Get a support system. A simple touch on the arm when somebody notices it can help deal with the problem.
* Understand that most knuckle-cracking is harmless and will probably go away with time.
* Excessive knuckle-popping, accompanied by popping of other joints can be an early sign of more serious anxiety disorders. Consult a doctor.