Can Cracking Your Knuckles Really Cause Arthritis? What the Science Says

Learn what’s causing that sound — and how it affects your digits.

Loading the player...

Everyone loves a good stretch—and so does your body. Stretching helps reset and realign your body when you’re sitting in one position for too long (like, ahem, hunched over your laptop), and it improves your flexibility and range of motion.

So what’s the fuss about cracking your knuckles? Flexing your fingers can feel oh-so satisfying after an hour of typing, writing, or lugging grocery bags.

But that signature crackle of your knuckles will likely earn you a scowl or two from nearby coworkers. Even worse, if you’re with your mom, she might remind you, for the thousandth time, that your knuckle-popping habits are going to give you arthritis.

Was mom right? Does habitually cracking your knuckles increase your risk of osteoarthritis?

Um, no. Not according to science. Multiple studies, including a 2011 case-control study from The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, have not found any correlation between habitual cracking of knuckles and risk of developing osteoarthritis.

In fairness to moms everywhere, it’s a valid concern. Osteoarthritis typically occurs during old age and is blamed on excessive “wear and tear” on the joints. Lifestyle factors like being overweight, injury, or overusing a joint can put strain on the body and speed the breakdown of cartilage, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Learn more about osteoarthritis here.

The cracking sound from your knuckles when you stretch them might sound sinister, but it’s not an injury (read: you’re not breaking or grinding any bones).

Your knuckles are filled with capsules that contain synovial fluid, according to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. The fluid serves to lubricate the space between the joints. The synovial capsule also contains gases that dissolve in the fluid. When you push down on your knuckles, you lower the pressure inside the joint that causes a bubble of gas to form. When those gas bubbles pop, it creates the cracking sound you know and love.

This effect in your synovial capsules is temporary, however, and doesn’t lead to long-term damage to the joint. The gases eventually re-dissolve into the synovial fluid (at least until you crack them again).

But science might throw mom one point after all: One study of 300 patients found that habitual knuckle cracking was linked to hand swelling and worse  grip strength. Giving your knuckles a good crack might not lead to osteoarthritis, but it may cause what your doc calls “functional hand impairment” in other ways.

Wanna test more of your mom’s health theories?