There’s something inherently startling about a knee popping or a shoulder clicking mid workout, but rackety joints aren’t always the red light you’d assume them to be. Here are a few reasons why your joints might be making a commotion, and what to do about it...
Common causes of popping joints
“Popping, creaking or cracking joints might sound alarming but it isn’t really something you should worry about. Typically it happens when our tendons move over our bones which creates a noise, or when an air bubble pops in a joint."
“Tendons are a bit like elastic bands and link muscles to bone, stretching over our joints. The popping or cracking noise can be heard if tendons move across a joint quickly, and then snap back into place. They can happen frequently or rarely and be loud or quiet.
The most common areas that crack are our knees and back, especially when we squat, stretch out our arms or stand up.”
Psycle London fitness instructor, personal trainer, dancer and yoga instructor Zoe Shinn has heard a fair few knees and shoulders popping in her fitness sessions- here’s when clients’ joints tend to ‘click’ the most:
“There's lots of reasons why you might hear popping sounds during a workout. For example, many people who take part in more plyometric-style training (jumps) complain of knee creaks. This may be due to the joint drying up from loading, potentially the ankle and hips could be stiffer so the knee isn't tracking correctly, or perhaps the tendons have thickened due to overuse.”
“For others, they may not have experienced much variety in their workouts, so could be experiencing the popping due to inflammation, misalignment or a buildup of tension in muscles due to repetitive movements with poor technique.”
“Sometimes the popping can just be gas releasing from the joint, so you shouldn’t be concerned. The bottom line is that if you’re experiencing pain, limited movement and/or you’ve got a pre-existing injury that seems to be worsening, then it would wise to get an assessment booked in with a professional.”
Speaking of which...
Creaky joints or an injury?
Carrie has a handy jarring joint checklist:
“It really depends on what’s normal for you – it’s common and really isn’t something to worry about generally.”
“That said, if you start developing pain alongside a cracking sensation, or if your joints are also swollen, warmer than normal, bruised, or if they ‘lock’ you should see your GP, or book in for a physio appointment at one of our Bupa clinics . Pain or swelling could, for example, be a sign of a meniscal or cartilage injury.”
Why joints click more in some workouts than others
There’s an anatomical reason for that according to Carrie...
“Different types of exercise impact different joints – squats, for instance, are more likely to make your knees and ankles click but are unlikely to affect your shoulder, whereas playing tennis or doing arm weights could make your shoulder ‘click’ or ‘pop’.”
The best types of exercise for joint strengthening
Here’s Carrie’s physio prescription:
“Regular exercise is really important for ensuring that your muscles and joints stay strong. You should mix up your routine so that you are working on your strength, flexibility and proprioception (the body’s ability to sense movement within our joints and joint position).”
“I always encourage my patients to exercise with weights or resistance bands once or twice a week – or to exercise using their own bodyweight. Squats and lunges are particularly effective. In short, strong muscles will protect your joints! Staying at a healthy weight is also really important, as being overweight will put extra pressure on your joints and you’ll be at a higher risk of injuring yourself.”
“ Warming up before you exercise is also really, really important (I really can’t stress this enough!).”
Zoe’s PT routine:
“Your precise workout regime largely depends what your end goal is, but in general, strength training such as squats and deadlifts are known to be the best exercises to increase joint strength, specifically for the knees, hips and spine.”
Stretching it out
Turns out stretching ain’t for sissies, as Zoe explains:
“If the popping comes about through muscle tightness or stiffness, stretching should ‘bookend’ your workout, i.e, do it both before and after exercise. Foam rolling can be very effective and consider booking into a yin yoga session too.”
“If popping occurs during just a specific exercise, the muscle may be rubbing and causing friction around the bone. In that situation, stretch surrounding muscles, resume with the correct technique, and the popping should decrease or become almost non-existent. To avoid this, always ensure you’ve done a thorough warm up before jumping into a workout.”
Joints still popping? Carrie advises not to sweat it:
“If the creaking and clicking is due to a tight muscle, then stretching may help. However,as above I must highlight that creaking joints are normal, and although exercising and staying flexible is always a good thing, joints that are a bit ‘noisy’ don’t necessarily mean anything is wrong.”
Reps and sets
It can be tempting to avoid certain moves if your bones seem a bit, well, clunky, but Zoe recommends seeking expert guidance rather than forgoing the gym:
“The best advice would be to find out why the crack is happening in the first place, so that you get to crux of the issue. Get an assessment. An exercise programme can then be built to fit your specific needs. The likelihood is that there’s nothing serious happening, and therefore no need to avoid workouts.”
Carrie seconds this advice, with one caveat...
“As long as you aren’t in pain and you don’t suspect an injury, then you really don’t need to avoid any type of exercise or any particular moves. However, if you do have a tendon that repeatedly cracks over a bone, like an elbow or one of your knees, you could irritate the tendon if you perform high repetitions or sets, so be careful.”
If in doubt, speak up
If you know you’re not injured, but tinkly joints are driving you nuts, don’t let them be the elephant in the room during savasana. Zoe’s here for you:
“Adopting correct technique and seeking support and guidance from a PT can be helpful once you know what the issue is. Even professionals revisit their technique in order to avoid injury- never be shy about asking for pointers or advice!”
Incidentally, when Zoe suspects that something’s up in the joint department she visits Desmond Macaulay at his Physiotherapy & Sports Injury Clinic on Lavender Hill in London. Otherwise seek out your GP or search the Bupa website for physiotherapists in your area.
Follow Zoe on Instagram @zoeshinn