You wake up, stretch and pop, pop goes your hips and shoulders. You get to work, pop your knuckles, and crack your neck. You get to the gym and squat - your knees click. Sound familiar?
Cracking, popping and clicking is a common part of many peoples' daily lives. But is it good for you?
First, you should be aware, popping and cracking are different than clicking. Here is the deal for both:
Popping and Cracking
A pop or crack in a joint happens when it is stretched. This drops the pressure in the joint fluids, causing bubbles to form and collapse on themselves. It is this collapse of air that creates the pop you crave or shudder at. If you want more information, you can check out this study.
Despite what your mom told you, studies have not shown cracking knuckles leads to the development of arthritis. However, studies have shown popping and cracking can lead to swelling and loss of grip strength. So if you naturally have lax joints (double jointed), you should probably stay away from intentional cracking because it will give you higher chance for orthopedic injury. If they continually crack unintentionally while stretching, don't fret, just focus on proper strength training of the musculature supporting the joint.
The other thing that causes cracking is crepitus. Crepitus generally is associated with pain, and mostly has a different sensation (more like a grating feeling) than the pop of a stretched joint. Crepitus can be a sign of joint degeneration. If you believe there to be a joint that falls under this category, do not crack it. Get it checked out.
There are several different reasons why you might click, and it is not always easy to assess. Joint clicking, like you might experience in your knees or shoulders, if painless and is something you have always had, is not necessarily something you need to worry about. However, if you suddenly start to get clicking with the onset of certain movements or activities, or if it is acute and causing pain, you need to take a closer look to prevent initiating or furthering an injury.
The factors that can lead down this path are posture, bio-mechanics, and muscle balance relationships. What is the culprit behind all of these? Mobility. Lack of mobility from tight muscles can degrade the bio-mechanics of movements, causing improper posture and muscular imbalances. Once the root of the problem is found, supplemental work (whether it is with mobility, exercises to help you activate and fire the correct muscles, or drills to practice posture and mechanics) can be assigned by a coach, physical therapist, or doctor.