As we get older, our joints start to pop and crack, sounding like the Fourth of July or Rice Krispies that snap, crackle and pop. But when you hear these sounds, is it something you should be worried about?

Generally, a pop or crack in any joint is not something to worry about. This a part of aging and not something that should cause you to change your life or your activities. For example, when some people squat down, they hear a pop or crack but they do not have any pain. That’s normal and I’ll explain the cause of that below.

However, if you hear popping or cracking and it is painful, you should seek medical attention. For example, if you lift your arm overhead and hear a pop and experience pain in that area, then there is something wrong in your shoulder that needs to be addressed.

What makes the pop and crack sound?

There are a couple reasons. One is that there is nitrogen being released from the joint. Imagine plastic wrap surrounding each joint creating this protective bubble. As you move through the day this bubble fills up with nitrogen. When the bubble gets full of nitrogen it will cause a joint to pop or crack. This is normal and does not usually cause pain.

Another reason is that the joint is not aligned correctly. For example, as you lower into a squat or lift your arm overhead, your joints are designed to fit together perfectly. There are protective coverings on all the bones that allow them to slide and move smoothly. But as we get older, the protective covering wears away, which causes pops and cracks that can be painful. Sometimes the protective layer is completely gone, and it can cause bone to rub on bone. That causes a lot of pain. For example, when you hear a joint crack or pop as you bend down, that could be the interaction of the kneecap with the bone behind it because the covering on the back of the knee cap is worn away in some parts.

It is important to note that a joint pop or crack may be associated with a pinching feeling. This is not normal. As we get older, ligaments, muscles, and tendons loosen up, and they can get caught in the joint as you move. This can cause a pinching feeling. If you feel a pinch, seek medical attention.

What should you never do?

You should never force any joint to pop or crack. Don’t crack your knuckles by pushing or pulling your fingers. Don’t crack your neck by forcing your neck to turn in order to get the joint to pop or crack.

In fact, the more you crack or pop your joints, the more you will condition your joints to need to be cracked and popped. This will cause them to loosen up, and can lead to more problems and pain in the long run.

Heather Moore, PT, DPT, is the owner of Total Performance Physical Therapy, a physical and aquatic therapy center in North Wales and Hatfield.