*Cracks Knuckles* So What is Arthritis?

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Knuckle cracking can be very stress relieving for most people. Some people enjoy it so much that they can also crack other parts of their body, such as their neck, back, or even their toes. There is a long list of myths and superstitions revolved around knuckle cracking, the most infamous of which is that it can cause arthritis.

Arthritis is literally defined as “inflammation of the joint” and can be an informal way of referring to joint pain or disease. Contrary to popular belief, people of all ages can and do have arthritis, and it is the leading cause of disability in America as nearly 60 million adults and 300,000 children have some type of arthritis (Arthritis.org)

The most common type of arthritis includes osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis causes cartilage – the flexible tissue that protects the ends of bones – to break down. On the other hand, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where one’s immune system attacks the joints, causing painful inflammation and joint tissue damage. Although the causes of both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are currently unknown, it is believed that genetics predisposes both diseases. However, for osteoarthritis, the chance of developing the disease increases with age as cartilage naturally wears away. It most commonly occurs in weight-bearing joints, such as the knees, hips, and spine, but can also affect the thumb, neck, and toes. As the cartilage deteriorates, the tendons that connect bones to muscles and ligaments that connect bones to other bones begin to stretch, which causes pain. Some risk factors other than age include obesity and joint overuse, such as people whose jobs require constant bending of the knees.

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your own immune system attacks the synovial membrane, a membrane that lines the joint. As the disease progresses, the synovial membrane becomes inflamed and produces an excess of synovial fluid, a gel-like fluid that lubricates the joints. The excess build-up of synovial fluid leads to further swelling and inflammation, which causes pain and stiffness at the joint. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis mainly occurs in the hands, wrists, and the knees.

Treatment for both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can include physical therapy to ease the pain and/or swelling, as well as topical creams and medication to relieve joint pain.

So where did the rumor of knuckle cracking causing arthritis come from? Research has shown that knuckle cracking has no correlation with arthritis. The sound that accompanies cracking one’s knuckles comes from the formation of a vacuum that is filled by gas within the synovial fluid, and the bursting of that bubble gives rise to the satisfying “pop” sound. There is no current evidence that cracking knuckles can cause any damage such as arthritis, so crack away only at the expense of annoying your neighbors!

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