Maybe you know a knuckle-cracker, or maybe you are a knuckle-cracker. In any case, we’re all familiar with the sound: An intense popping or cracking that’s either strangely satisfying or straight-up excruciating, depending on whom you ask.
What knuckle-cracking actually is though, practically speaking, is a nervous habit akin to nail-biting, hair-twirling, or foot-tapping: It’s something many default to when they’re uncomfortable or even mindlessly when they’re just bored. But is it innocuous, health-wise, like those other common rituals? Or might the overextended stretching of your digits be causing you body any damage? Because that popping effect certainly doesn’t sound natural.
First things first, here’s what actually happens when you cathartically enmesh your fingers, flip ’em inside out, and stretch: That popping sound? Bubbles bursting in the synovial fluid of the knuckles, which is the stuff that gives your joints their lubrication. And while the notion of knuckle-cracking leading to arthritis has been gratefully rejected by several studies, one sizable aesthetic question mark remains: Can the habit make your knuckles bigger?
The risks associated with knuckle-cracking
Good news: The whole knuckle-cracking-makes-your-knuckles-bigger myth seems to be just that—a myth. According to plastic surgeon Lara Devgan, MD, current research points to a causal relationship between cracking and enlarged knuckles being unlikely. There are risks to consider, though. A 1990 study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases found that that 84 percent of 300 regular knuckle-crackers experienced hand-swelling later in life, yet just 6 percent of non-crackers shared those results.
“For most average knuckle-crackers, [the habit] is probably not going to result in a meaningfully visible difference.” —Laura Devgan, MD
While the jury’s still out on exactly why this is (because, remember correlation is not causation), there’s a good chance inflammation plays a role. “Cracking the knuckles does add to mechanical wear and tear as well as inflammation of the joints,” says Dr. Devgan. “For most average knuckle-crackers, this is probably not going to result in a meaningfully visible difference, but overuse injuries are real, and this practice is not recommended.”
Why do we crack our knuckles, anyway?
But hey, old habits die hard—and this one may well have started way back in the day. As little kids, we find methods for self-soothing in moments of distress. Thumb-sucking is a great example of this. And while you’d be hard-pressed to find a preschooler who cracks their knuckles habitually like nobody’s business, it’s a habit we pick up over time that can be addictive. Maybe you did it once and liked the sound and feeling and just couldn’t stop.
Another possibility, according to Robert Graham, MD, is that people crack their knuckles to get some relief. “Sometimes, people perceive a sensation of tightness in their joints, so they try to relieve it by cracking their knuckles,” he explains.
Could there be any benefits to knuckle-cracking?
Just as there aren’t any huge risks surrounding regular knuckle-cracking, there aren’t any life-altering benefits to it, either. Although, one small study of 40 adults conducted by the Radiological Society of North America did find that some participants had an increased range of motion after cracking their knuckles compared to knuckles that hadn’t been cracked. Of course, this is just one study, and a lot more research would need to be done before any real conclusion around the benefits of knuckle-cracking could be reached.
Long story short, knuckle-cracking likely won’t be the reason you need to get all your rings resized. And while a lifelong habit of it could maybe lead to some hand-swelling later in life, a few cracks here and there probably won’t cause much long-term swelling.
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