In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest -- and most cherished -- medical myths out there. For our October 2011 issue, we asked Dimitrios Pappas, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, about the long-term effects of one popular childhood activity: knuckle cracking.
Q: My 10-year-old son cracks his knuckles. Is it true that it causes arthritis?
The pain and stiffness come on quickly, whether from an injury or an unknown cause; you may be experiencing the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or another arthritic condition such as gout.
The pain is accompanied by fever; you may have infectious arthritis.
You notice pain and stiffness in your arms, legs, or back after sitting for short periods or after a night's sleep; you may be developing rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or another arthritic condition.
Ten-year-old boys love to make noises with their body, so it's not surprising your son is intrigued with the sound of a good knuckle pop. But you can put your fears aside -- the idea that knuckle cracking leads to arthritis is FALSE.
"There have been a few studies on this,” Pappas says. "None of them shows any change in the occurrence of arthritis between people who habitually crack their knuckles and those who do not.”
But here's something cool you can tell your son: The "pop” that comes when you compress your knuckles isn't from bone snapping on bone. It happens because, as the bones are stretched apart, a gas bubble forms and then pops.
While such joint cracking doesn't lead to arthritis, medical journals do contain reports of people who injured their ligaments while cracking their knuckles. At least one study also found the grip of people who habitually crack their knuckles may weaken over the years.