Snap, Crackle, and Pop: What Do All These Joint Sounds Mean?

Health Professional

You might be a little concerned to hear snap, crackle and pop in the morning, especially when those noises are not coming from your bowl of Rice Krispies. Instead, those noises might be coming from one, two or three of your joints. Yikes. What do all these gyrations mean? Doctors hear these question all the time but sometimes even we do not know the exact answer and that uncertain seems to make matters worse. So, let me try to clear the air about some of these joint sounds.

A "snap" is classically heard coming from the hip joint - a snapping hip. Usually, this sound represents a tendon snapping across one of the big hip bones. When this motion creates friction and irritation to the soft tissues, that sound can be accompanied by pain. A snapping hip is not a problem unless pain, reduced range of motion or weakness are also presenting as part of the problem. Other joints can also make snapping noises because the interaction between tendons, muscles and bones is not as silent and smooth as you might think - especially as you get older.

A "crackle" or crackling-like sensation is typically felt or heard underneath the shoulder blade. Fibrous muscle tissue between the chest wall and the shoulder blade can turn a smooth glide into bumpy sensation. In other joints, this roughness may be created by worn cartilage that is no longer smooth. In the case of these arthritic joints, this crackling noise is called creptitus. If you have pain or swelling along with a noisy joint, an orthopedic specialist might be able to help. Otherwise, a little crackling noise now and then is as innocent as a squeaky door that needs a little WD-40.

A "pop" can sometimes be heard around the room when someone adjusts a knuckle joint. Other joints can pop too. The spine joints (facet joints) are frequently popping as the two bones slightly adjust their positions. A wise old physical therapist gave me the best explanation I have heard regarding popping joints: He believes the sound is created from within the joint capsule (a little balloon that surrounds the joint) by the pressure changes in the joint fluid. To further expand upon this explanation, scientists believe that these fluid-pressure changes cause gases to rapidly release from the joint capsule creating  a "pop". Try filling up a balloon with water and shake it around, you will notice many sounds as the fluid sloshes around. Now, suddenly release the air from a balloon and you will hear a "pop."   So pop a top and relax, that popping noise is normal.

Knowing the difference between normal and abnormal should provide some peace of mind. All those snaps, crackles and pops are normal even when they are not coming from your bowl of cereal. You should only be concerned if those noises turn into pain, swelling and loss of joint function. Next time you hear a joint sound just say to yourself, "I heard that noise, but my joint is safe and sound."