If your knees grind, creak, grate, pop, thump, crack or crunch when you move through a particular range of motion, you have crepitus. Don't worry, it's not as bad as it sounds. Get-Fit Guy explains why your joints make noise and what you can do about it.
Get-Fit Guy podcast listener named Brian wrote to me earlier today:
“Hi, Brock. I just received the news from my doctor that I have Crepitus in my right knee. It does not hurt a lot and I have not seen a PT yet. I stopped running and am using the RICE protocol on my knee. But do you have any other suggestions? What exercises do you suggest? Should I put a knee brace on? Thank you for your help.”
After doing some deep breathing relaxation exercises so I don't lose my cool, this is what I wrote back to him:
"First off, Crepitus is not a condition. It's simply a fancy way of saying 'noisy body part.' It doesn’t mean that anything is wrong, per se, especially if it isn’t paired with pain. Although it can be annoying, most of us get crepitus in one joint or another as we age.
Yes there are things we can do to minimize it, but please don’t wear a knee brace. Unless you have pain and a very particular type of injury, a knee brace will most often make matters worse. You need to allow your joints to move through their full range of motion. It’s when we stop using our full range of motion that we allow problems to become bigger and harder to correct.
If you are concerned about this issue, go see a physical therapist (or sports doctor) who specializes in joint function. Frankly, your doctor doesn’t sound like they have a lot of training or understanding of this stuff—especially if the diagnosis was 'crepitus.'"
Yes, I know I could have gone easier on Brian’s doctor but Brian sounds worried and rightly so. Crepitus sounds like a scary problem if you don’t know what it is. So, let’s take a closer look and hopefully put Brian’s mind (and yours) at ease.
What Is Crepitus?
Crepitus (or the more fun way of saying it: crepitation) describes any type of grinding, creaking, grating, popping, thumping, cracking, or crunching that happens in a joint when we move it through a range of motion. We can experience crepitus at any age but generally, it doesn’t usually show up until we get older. Many people experience crepitus in their knees but you can get it in other joints, like the hip, neck, shoulders, or spine.
Incidentally, the word crepitus can also be used to describe the sound of other conditions like lungs crackling during bronchitis. It's not just about bones or joints.
Some common theories about what causes crepitus are bubbles popping inside the joint or tendons and ligaments snapping over a joint's bony structures. The bubbles don’t cause pain but the ligament snapping can sometimes be painful. I actually have a rather loud thump in my right shoulder when I do big arm circles. But aside from drawing some extra attention from my fellow gym goers, it doesn’t bother me at all.
On the other hand, a more serious cause of crepitus can be arthritis which causes a joint’s articular cartilage (the smooth, white tissue that covers the ends of bones) to degenerate. If you have severe crepitus, especially if it causes pain, you should get checked for arthritis. Incidentally, many of the techniques to alleviate crepitus that I will discuss today can also work for arthritis. But just because you have noisy knees, Brian, doesn’t mean you have—or will ever get—arthritis. So don't panic just yet.