You’ve heard it before. You’re in a quiet room in among a gathering of people, and then—POP!—a little cracking noise rings out, followed by another, and another, and another. For some, cracking knuckles is a habit, while for others that little pop brings relief. And it's not just reserved for tough guys before they beat people up: Between 25 and 54 percent of all people crack their knuckles multiple times a day. But is the old wives’ tale true? Are these knuckle-crackers more likely to hurt their hands and gradually develop arthritis as they get older?
In short, nope! Despite the rumor that kids constantly hear, it turns out there is no scientific correlation between cracking your knuckles and developing arthritis in your joints, which is when one or more of the points where your bones meet develop inflammation.
When you crack your knuckles, you're actually doing more bursting than cracking. The popping noise you hear is caused by small bubbles bursting in your synovial fluid, a yolk-like substance that lubricates the areas between bones and reduces friction for ease of movement.
Here's how it works: When you make the motion to crack your knuckles—either by stretching your fingers or bending them backwards—you expand the joint. This causes the pressure between the joint to decrease, as well as the ligaments that connect the bones and the joint capsule that holds all of it together. That depressurization causes gasses like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and oxygen that are dissolved in the synovial fluid to form into little bubbles that rush into the empty space. As the joints settle back into place, the fluid also returns to its rightful place and pops those little bubbles, causing that recognizable cracking sound.
The sensation of cracking your fingers feels good because the stretching of the joint also stimulates nerve endings found along the fingers; joints can’t be cracked more than once within 15 minutes to a half hour, which is about how long it takes for those gasses to dissolve back into your synovial fluid.
Among the scientific studies conducted to prove that there is no correlation between cracking your knuckles and osteoarthritis, one published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine in 2010 found that, among a group of 215 participants between the ages of 50 to 89, arthritis was prevalent in about 18 percent of the people who crack their knuckles and in 21.5 percent who don't, making any correlation inconclusive. Probably the most entertaining study on the subject is by a Dr. Donald Unger who, inspired by his mother’s warnings as a child about getting arthritis by constantly cracking his knuckles, spent more than 60 years cracking only the knuckles on his left hand at least twice a day (in this case, the right hand served as his control). His finding, published in 1998 in a journal called Arthritis & Rheumatism, found there was no discernible sign of arthritis in his left hand as opposed to his right.
So don’t listen to what mom says, everybody—feel free to crack away!