Why Do Our Knuckles Pop? Debunking the arthritis myth

19 September 2023

Are you a knuckle-cracker, or do you cringe when you hear the familiar sound?

Have you ever wondered why your knuckles pop, or for that matter, why joints in your body crack in general? Some find it oddly satisfying, while others think it’s just a quirky habit. Among all the joints, our fingers take the prize for being the most common self-cracking culprits.

Let’s clarify one thing: that satisfying pop you hear isn’t always coming directly from your joint. Sometimes, it’s a tendon snapping over a bone, adding to the sonic spectacle. There are different theories floating around about why joints crack, and some of them are intriguing the video below (worth watching and quite fun) explains some of them.

Debunking the Arthritis Myth

Despite the popularity of knuckle-cracking, countless individuals have been warned by well-meaning non-experts (cue the classic line, “I’m not a doctor, but…”) that this habit will inevitably lead to arthritis. Enter Dr. Donald Unger, an M.D. who single-handedly dismantled this amateur argument with his groundbreaking study published back in 1998. Titled “Does Knuckle Cracking Lead to Arthritis of the Fingers?” in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, his work remains an enduring testament to scepticism and scientific curiosity.

Dr. Unger’s journey into the world of knuckle-cracking was recently honoured with the prestigious Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine. For the uninitiated, the Ig Nobels are presented annually on the eve of the genuine Nobel Prizes by the organization Improbable Research. They celebrate “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Unger’s meticulous protocol led some to ponder whether he might be a tad obsessive-compulsive. As per his publication, “For 50 years, the author cracked the knuckles of his left hand at least twice a day, leaving those on the right as a control. Thus, the knuckles on the left were cracked at least 36,500 times, while those on the right cracked rarely and spontaneously.”

Dr. Unger embarked on his self-righteous research journey because, during his childhood, various esteemed authorities, including his mother and several aunts, had adamantly informed him that knuckle-cracking would inevitably lead to arthritis of the fingers. Armed with half a century of data, he could cleverly respond to unsolicited advice givers with the wisdom that the results weren’t in yet. In conclusion, the age-old myth linking knuckle-cracking to arthritis has been definitively debunked by Dr Unger’s daring half-century experiment. So, the next time someone warns you about the perils of popping your knuckles, regale them with the tale of Dr. Unger’s unyielding quest for truth. And remember, whether you love it or hate it, the science behind why our knuckles pop remains a fascinating journey of sound and scepticism.

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