Does Cracking Your Knuckles Really Give You Arthritis?

Jaysin Trevino, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Jaysin Trevino, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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 and 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!

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Can Soap Get Dirty?

iStock/vintagerobot
iStock/vintagerobot

When you see lovely little bars of lemon-thyme or lavender hand soaps on the rim of a sink, you know they are there to make you feel as fresh as a gardenia-scented daisy. We all know washing our hands is important, but, like washcloths and towels, can the bars of hand soap we use to clean ourselves become dirty as well?

Soaps are simply mixtures of sodium or potassium salts derived from fatty acids and alkali solutions during a process called saponification. Each soap molecule is made of a long, non-polar, hydrophobic (repelled by water) hydrocarbon chain (the "tail") capped by a polar, hydrophilic (water-soluble) "salt" head. Because soap molecules have both polar and non-polar properties, they're great emulsifiers, which means they can disperse one liquid into another.

When you wash your dirty hands with soap and water, the tails of the soap molecules are repelled by water and attracted to oils, which attract dirt. The tails cluster together and form structures called micelles, trapping the dirt and oils. The micelles are negatively charged and soluble in water, so they repel each other and remain dispersed in water—and can easily be washed away.

So, yes, soap does indeed get dirty. That's sort of how it gets your hands clean: by latching onto grease, dirt and oil more strongly than your skin does. Of course, when you're using soap, you're washing all those loose, dirt-trapping, dirty soap molecules away, but a bar of soap sitting on the bathroom counter or liquid soap in a bottle can also be contaminated with microorganisms.

This doesn't seem to be much of a problem, though. In the few studies that have been done on the matter, test subjects were given bars of soap laden with E. coli and other bacteria and instructed to wash up. None of the studies found any evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to the subjects' hands. (It should be noted that two of these studies were conducted by Procter & Gamble and the Dial Corp., though no contradictory evidence has been found.)

Dirty soap can't clean itself, though. A contaminated bar of soap gets cleaned via the same mechanical action that helps clean you up when you wash your hands: good ol' fashioned scrubbing. The friction from rubbing your hands against the soap, as well as the flushing action of running water, removes any harmful microorganisms from both your hands and the soap and sends them down the drain.

This story was updated in 2019.

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