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What Is That Popping Sound?
Have you ever cracked your knuckles and wondered, "What's that popping sound?" Popping and cracking sounds in the course of the movement of human joints are natural—and often disconcerting. These sounds are made in two general circumstances: when the sound is accompanied by pain in the moving joint, and when the sound occurs with the movement alone.
Almost all joints in the body have are made of several bones. At the point where they meet, there is a slick, friction-reducing material called articular cartilage, which is intended to help smooth the movement of the joint. The joint is encased in a capsule that contains synovial fluid, a substance also designed to reduce friction in the joint. There is sometimes a bursa sac in the joint to also cushion impact. Ligaments tie the bones together at the joint area.
Popping sounds that are not painful most commonly occur in the ankle, back, knee, knuckles, and neck. These sounds are caused in joints for a variety of reasons, depending on the joint. The ankle has three different ankle joints, created by the conjunction of the ankle bone with the tibia and the fibula. When the ankle moves, if one of the three ligaments rubs the joint, there will be a popping sound. The same thing may happen in the back, where the bony structure can be slightly misaligned. Movement of the misaligned vertebrae may cause a similar popping or cracking sound.
If there is pain asssociated with the popping sound, it can be a sign of a joint injury or degenerative condition. When the noise from the knee occurs in conjunction with pain in the joint, the cartilage in the knee, known as the meniscus, is commonly torn or otherwise worn. Pain will also occur in the knee if a piece of cartilage has broken away from its position and it is floating within the synovial fluid in the joint. When cartilage pieces float into the space between the bones of the joint, there will be pain.
Popping sounds may also accompany a serious injury or tear of a ligament. Such occurrences are usually painful, but not exclusively so. A popping sound is often experienced by athletes who sustain ligament tears, an Achilles tendon rupture, or a rupture of a muscle such as a hamstring or quad.. The pop is caused by the ligament or tendon being completely torn in half from the trauma.