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Is cracking knees a sign of arthritis?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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Arthritis is a medical condition that affects the joints, causing pain, stiffness, swelling, and reduced motion. There are many types of arthritis, each with specific causes and symptoms, but they all involve inflammation of the joints. Arthritis can occur in any joint in the body, but one of the most common places it's found is in the knees.

One of the signs of arthritis is cracking knees. This involves hearing a popping or clicking sound when your knee becomes bent or straightened. The sound can occur due to cartilage damage, and is commonly accompanied by joint pain. However, this is not a definitive symptom.

If you suspect that you may have arthritis, it's important to try and detect it early and seek treatment.

What causes knee cracking?

The knee is the largest joint in the human body. It's made up of three main components that work together to give the knees a wide range of motion:

  • The femur: the thigh bone that forms the upper part of the knee joint.
  • The tibia: the shin bone that forms the bottom part of the knee joint.
  • The patella: the small piece of bone that sits at the front of the knee joint. More commonly known as the kneecap!

Alongside these main components are several other structures, including:

  • Cartilage: a smooth, flexible tissue that covers the ends of bones to help cushion the joint.
  • Ligaments: strong, fibrous bands of tissue that connect the bones of the knee joint.
  • Meniscus: a c-shaped piece of cartilage that sits between the femur and tibia to absorb shock and support the knee joint.

With so many different parts to the knee joint, there are a variety of reasons why your knees can be heard cracking. Some of the most common causes of knee cracking include:

  1. Arthritis: in some cases, knee cracking can be a symptom of arthritis. As the joint becomes inflamed and the cartilage wears down, the bones can rub against each other, creating a cracking sound.
  2. Gas bubbles: as we move around day-to-day, harmless small gas bubbles can form in the protective fluid that surrounds the knee joint. When you bend your knees, these bubbles can burst, causing a cracking sound.
  3. Cartilage wear and tear: over time, cartilage that covers the ends of the thigh and shin bones can wear down. This can wear down due to age, injury, or overuse. When worn down, this can create a cracking or popping sound when bending the knees.
  4. Ligament or tendon movement: ligaments and tendons surrounding the knee joints can move slightly out of alignment during certain movements, creating a cracking sound.
  5. Meniscus tears: cracking sounds can occur if the meniscus becomes torn or damaged.

Depending on the underlying cause, knee cracking can be either harmless or pathological. Harmless knee cracking usually occurs without pain or discomfort, and is not accompanied by swelling, inflammation or difficulties with range of motion. However, if your knee cracking is accompanied by these symptoms, it is possible that the underlying cause may be due to a pathological condition, such as arthritis.

How to alleviate knee cracking

Knee cracking can be completely harmless, but it can also be a sign of arthritis and poor knee joint health. If your knee cracking is accompanied by pain or swelling, the best thing to do is to see a doctor. They may prescribe you a joint pain relief gel, such as FlexiSEQ or Voltaren.

Here are some ways to alleviate knee cracking:

  • Low impact exercise: exercise can help strengthen the muscles around the knees. Some exercises that can help include cycling, swimming and walking.
  • Stretching: knee cracking can be caused by tightened muscles. Stretching can help loosen the muscles, improve flexibility, and reduce risks of injury.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: knees are load bearing joints. Maintaining a healthy weight can help alleviate the stress put on the knees and alleviate cracking.
  • Eat a balanced diet: your diet plays a crucial role in maintaining joint health. Ensure you eat a balanced diet that includes foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and vitamin D, which help reduce inflammation and promote joint health.
  • Wear supportive footwear: wearing comfortable and supportive shoes can help reduce the impact on your knees while walking or running. Shoes with good arch support and shock-absorbing soles are particularly beneficial.
  • Joint pain relief: some joint pain relief medications are designed to reduce inflammation. If your knee cracking occurs alongside pain and inflammation, a pain relief gel such as FlexiSEQ or Voltaren may help alleviate cracking as well as your other symptoms.

When to seek medical attention

Knee cracking may be indicative of arthritis if it is accompanied with pain, swelling, or stiffness. If you experience these symptoms, you should seek medical attention by booking an appointment with your doctor.

It's important to consult your doctor, who will be able to assess your symptoms and provide the appropriate advice and treatment.

Conclusion

In conclusion, knee cracking is a common phenomenon that can occur in individuals of all ages, and it is not necessarily indicative of arthritis. However, knee cracking accompanied by other symptoms such as pain, swelling, stiffness, locking, or instability may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition such as osteoarthritis or a meniscal tear.

Therefore, it is important to seek medical attention if you experience these symptoms to determine the underlying cause of your knee cracking and receive appropriate treatment. Maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, and incorporating strength training exercises can help prevent knee problems and maintain joint health.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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