Hello, my name is Jen and I am a knuckle cracker.
The habit started as part social curiosity, part trying to fit in with people I liked in high school. When I was 17, my boyfriend cracked his knuckles all the time and at first I found it disgusting. Then I got curious: why was he doing that? and what was he doing, anyway? In the way some people pick up base jumping out of a need to have different experiences and a sense of control in what happens to them and in their lives, I decided to start cracking my knuckles. I consciously pursued this habit that has now stuck with me for 8 years (don’t do the math, I’ll do it for you: I’m 25).
At first it really hurt; I had to remind myself to try to crack my knuckles and I ended up making a game of doing it whenever my boyfriend cracked his knuckles. Quickly, it became habitual and I found other places on my body that cracked: my neck, my back, the top of my foot, my elbow, I even started cracking the small joints on my fingers above the knuckles and the heal of my hand at the base of my thumb (is that a knuckle?). It’s unbelievable how this has affected my life. I can feel the tension in my hands and in my back when I haven’t cracked them in a while. Sometimes I find myself doing a weird sideways twitch with my head when I’ve been lying in bed at a weird angle and I have a sore neck. Something about the relief of cracking my neck makes me think it can also heal any other discomfort.
But what is going on? According to several sources, the popping sound that comes from cracking your knuckles is the release of gas from a protective fluid surrounding the cartilage around your joints. These gasses occur naturally in the synovial fluid surrounding your joints. The popping sound occurs either when the joint capsule is stretched rapidly and the gases are released as popping bubbles (wisegeek), or the cracking occurs as the joints are stretched and the vacuum seal created by the fluid is broken (Dr. Jonathan Kay).
One of my co-workers at the museum cringes every time she hears me crack my knuckles. Once, on the bus, a stranger grabbed my fists in her hand to get me to stop. Usually the follow-up response I get from people who dislike knuckle cracking is that it’s really bad for me and I can ruin my hands that way. So far, there is a bit of disagreement among physicians and anatomists over whether cracking joints is itself bad for your body. In some cases, the ease of cracking joints may indicate unhealthy joints not caused by the cracking. There was a study published by the Jornal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics that focused on 300 knuckle crackers and the effects of this practice on their joints (discovery). No connection to arthritis was conclusive in this study, but some damage to the joints being cracked was observed. In my own experience, I have noticed that my hands can feel really tired and weak if I crack my knuckles too often.
At this point, though, it will be a concerted effort to get me to stop cracking my knuckles. This post was inspired by random curiosity, and while I was looking for information and pictures to go with it, I found myself cracking my knuckles A LOT. It’s almost a competitive thing for me: sometimes I notice someone else cracking his knuckles in class, and I immediately feel like I can get a bigger crack or a more exaggerated one. I don’t know why I do this, but I know that other people also get inspired to crack their joints too – like when people yawn and it makes other people yawn, or when someone’s cell phone goes off in class and suddenly everyone else in class has to check their phones are silent.
While writing this, I have cracked all the knuckles on both my hands TWICE and a half. I also cracked my neck, my lower back, my right elbow, and the top of my right foot one time each.