Knees that “pop,” “click” or “crackle” may sometimes be headed toward arthritis in the near future, a recent study suggests. It's common for the knees to get a little noisy on occasion, and hearing a “crack” during your yoga class is probably not something to worry about, experts say.
But one study, published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, states that middle-aged and older adults who said their knees often crackled are more likely to develop arthritis symptoms in the next year. Of those who complained that their knees were “always” noisy, 11 percent developed knee arthritis symptoms within a year. That compared with 4.5 percent of people who said their knees “never” popped or cracked. Everyone else fell into the middle. Of people who said their knees “sometimes” or “often” made noise, roughly 8 percent developed knee arthritis symptoms in the next year.
Doctors have a term for these joint noises: crepitus.
Although patients frequently complain of crepitus, until now it has not been clear whether crepitus can predict symptomatic knee arthritis. That means people not only have evidence of cartilage breakdown on X-rays, but also suffer symptoms from it – namely, frequent pain and stiffness.
The study suggests that crepitus could be an indication that something is going on in the knee joint. Having crepitus doesn’t necessarily mean that you will need a knee replacement, but researchers suggest that you should exercise caution by visiting your doctor for an evaluation. If you’re concerned about crackling or popping joints, make an appointment.
The findings, however, come with some caveats. The nearly 3,500 study participants were at increased risk of developing knee arthritis symptoms to begin with, the study’s researchers explained.
The participants ranged in age from 45 to 79. Some were at risk of knee arthritis simply because of old age, while others had risk factors such as obesity or a history of a significant knee injury.
Additionally, even though the study participants were initially free of knee arthritis symptoms, some did have signs of arthritis damage on an X-ray. And it was in that group where crepitus was a red flag: People who “often” or “always” had noisy knees were nearly three times more likely to develop knee arthritis symptoms as those who “never” had crepitus.
According to the study’s researchers, the findings could be useful in everyday medical practice, and if patients are complaining of frequent cracking or popping in the knees, they should speak to their doctor about getting an X-ray.
If that turns up signs of arthritic damage, then the risk of progressing to symptoms in the near future is probably significant. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that can stop arthritis in progress, but some researchers believe that patients might benefit from strengthening the muscles that support the knees.