By Chris Kegler PT, DPT CSCS
“Snap, crackle, pop!” No, that was not milk being poured over Rice Krispies. It's your knees when you get up from the couch or your shoulders when you're reaching in the cupboard. Therapists are often presented with the statements, “Oh, my neck pops,” or “my knees crack,” when treating patients. Often the follow up question is, “Does it hurt when it pops or cracks?” If it does, there usually is a problem. Oftentimes when there is no pain, there is not a problem.
Crepitus is the medical term used to describe sounds a joint can make. It can sound like a crunch, snap or pop and is often associated with movement. Noises associated with arthritis sound more like a crunch or grinding sound. Snapping can occur when a tight band of tissue (ligament or tendon) moves over a bony prominence and popping occurs when a change in pressure (release of gases) occurs in the joint capsule.
It is normal for one knee joint to make more noise than the other. It does not necessarily mean it is injured, but could be under more stress because of a tighter tissue or weaker muscles. It is not uncommon for the body to be asymmetrical and have issues on one side. Also, previous injuries to the joint or surrounding tissue could increase crepitus.
Strengthening, re-education and balance activities are often prescribed for patients who have joints with instability leading to crepitus, but that does not always get rid of the noise. The noise can be "normal" but there is more cause for concern if pain is present.
If your joints make noises that are painful and it continues to persist more than seven to 10 days, please contact your local practitioner.
Lastly, here’s a quick balance exercise to try at home:
Balance on one foot while you are standing for a period of time, or try sitting up without using your hands.
*Note: Please consult your family medicine provider to ensure balance exercises are acceptable.