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The older we get, the more likely we are to hear sounds often described as creaking bones or creaking joints. The medical term is crepitus. If it’s just noise, don’t be alarmed. Noise accompanied by pain or swelling, however, is a problem.
What Causes Crepitus?
Several things can cause noise around joints. First, it’s not the bones creaking, but structures coming into contact with bones that cause all the racket.
As we age, cartilage that covers the ends of bones can wear away, causing rough areas. Instead of a soft tissue like a tendon silently gliding over the bone, the joint makes a grinding or crunching sound. Here are some other possibilities for crepitus:
- A ligament tightening as a person moves
- A tendon or ligament snapping over a bony prominence (a bump on a bone)
- Bones not moving easily in the joint (or as easily as they normally would)
- Air bubbles popping in the joint (harmless)
- Scar tissue (if sound is accompanied by pain)
- Meniscus tear (if sound is accompanied by pain)
- Total knee replacement (in 18 percent of cases)
The creaking sound in a knee is most likely to be noticeable when squatting, going down stairs, rising from a chair, or moving a joint through its full range of motion.
Is a Creaking Joint an Early Warning Sign?
Although not normally a problem, a recent study suggests knee noises could be an early warning sign of osteoarthritis.
A research team at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston observed nearly 3,500 adults (average age 61) who were at high risk for developing knee osteoarthritis. The objective was to determine if there was an association between crepitus and subsequently developing knee OA. Among those who developed OA within a year, more than 75 percent reported grating, cracking, or popping sounds in or around their knee joint prior to developing symptoms of OA.
The authors’ conclusion: People with noisy knees may be at higher risk for developing pain within the next year than those who do not have noisy knees. The study was published in the May 4, 2017 edition of Arthritis Care & Research.
Not Just the Knee
Other parts of the body can make creaking sounds. They include the hip, shoulder, neck, and spine, all of which could be affected by arthritis. The shoulder is especially noisy because it has so many moving parts. Neck crepitus is usually painless and harmless. Muscle tightness in the neck can cause it to pop or grind with movement. A person can make his or her knuckles crack, which releases nitrogen bubbles. The solution: don’t crack your knuckles.
How Does a Person Avoid Creaking Bones and Joints?
The best way is to move as much as possible during the day. Sitting has been called the “new smoking” because it has been linked to so many problems. Sitting-induced crepitus is way down on the list of problems, but it’s there. The more you move, the better the body lubricates its joints and the less noise they make.
Strengthen the Joint, Lower the Volume
Other ways to take care of joints and reduce the sounds they make are:
- Exercising to strengthen the joints making the noise (walking, biking, swimming)
- Warming up before exercising
- Stretching to maintain or increase flexibility
- Gradually increasing the intensity of duration of exercise
- Maintaining a healthy body weight (BMI under 25)
Listen, Learn, Act
Joint noises are pretty common, and they will become even more common with age. Listen to your body. Joint noise without pain is not a major concern, although it could be a warning sign for some people. Joint pain plus pain or swelling needs medical attention.