When Is Joint Popping a Problem?

Joint popping is a common occurrence in many people’s bodies. Many of the phenomenon’s causes are benign, like the release of nitrogen gas buildup or the natural consequences of aging. In some instances, cracking joints point to a more serious problem. Joint popping should never come with pain, swelling, or stiffness. If you’re concerned about popping joints, an orthopedic specialist can examine the area and answer any questions you may have. Find out when you should be concerned about the noises coming from your joints and don’t hesitate to seek medical advice if you meet one of these criteria.


Joint popping should not hurt. If your joints pop and it’s painful, it could be a sign of one of three problems: arthritis, bursitis, or tendonitis. You should see a doctor as soon as possible to determine if you’re dealing with one of these issues, and if so, to start a treatment plan.


Broadly, arthritis describes inflammation of the joint. In many cases, it’s characterized by a loss of cartilage and other protective tissue within a joint, causing the bones to rub together uncomfortably. People suffer from many types of arthritis, some of which are more common in older people and others of which can happen at any age.

When you experience popping joints because of arthritis, the culprit is the loss of protective tissue, like cartilage, in your joints. When your bones rub together it can cause damage and even erosion. Note that while popping joints can indicate you have arthritis, the act of popping your own joints will not give you arthritis. You may have heard people warn you about cracking your knuckles. However, medical science has shown no link between intentional joint popping and the development of arthritis.


Your joints contain tissue called bursa, which are little sacs filled with fluid that lubricate and protect your joints. Bursitis is what happens when this tissue becomes inflamed. If you’re experiencing joint popping with pain that’s almost constant, there’s a good chance that bursitis is behind your symptoms. This issue is most common in larger joints like your hip, elbow, or shoulder, but it can happen in other parts of the body, too. The good news is with a few weeks of treatment the bursitis should go away.


Your tendons are responsible for attaching your muscles and your bones. Tendinitis occurs when one of those tendons becomes inflamed. If the culprit is tendinitis, you’re more likely to experience pain when the joint is in motion. Instead of feeling pain directly on the joint, you’ll feel it right next to the joint. Tendinitis is common in people with athletic hobbies. With the help of a doctor, you can treat it with rest and physical therapy.


Swelling is another symptom of arthritis, bursitis, and tendinitis. However, it can also indicate other problems. If a popping joint is swollen, it could mean you have an injury like a torn tendon or ligament. While issues like mild tendinitis can often be treated at home after receiving a care plan from a doctor, tearing needs to be addressed by an orthopedic specialist and may require medical imaging to diagnose it. Torn tendons and ligaments will only get worse if you ignore them, so starting treatment immediately is necessary. If the injury gets bad enough, you might require surgery.

Joint Locking

You may notice that your joint locks up or seems to catch on something when you try to move it. You may also notice that the joint cracks or pops when this happens. Several issues can cause a locked or catching joint, all of which need to be diagnosed by a doctor. 

A torn ACL is a knee injury that athletes frequently suffer from. It comes with pain, swelling, and sometimes locking in the knee joint. Treatment usually involves surgery and physical therapy. It should be addressed as soon as possible. Osteochondritis dissecans is another issue that typically affects the knee and elbow joints. It occurs when the bone right next to the cartilage does not receive enough blood and breaks off. That broken piece can get stuck, causing the joint to lock. An orthopedic surgeon may be able to remove the damaged tissue with surgery.

Former Injuries

Sometimes a ligament or tendon that was previously injured doesn’t heal quite right. The scar tissue may cause tightness, or the tendon or ligament no longer slides smoothly past the hard tissue in your joint. By itself, popping in a formerly injured joint is not necessarily cause for concern. However, you should pay attention to what’s happening with that part of your body. You may be more prone to injury in that joint now, and popping can indicate that you’re putting too much stress on it.


A joint dislocation happens when the bones of your joint are injured in such a way that causes them to move out of their typical positions. It can happen to any joint but joints with a lot of movement like the shoulders are the most common. Dislocations happen when a lot of force is applied to the joint, like in a vehicle accident, during a contact sport, or when you fall. Some joints will pop back into place after a dislocation but others need a doctor to repair them. Dislocating a joint is very painful and should be treated immediately.

At Orthopedic Specialists of North Texas, we will investigate the cause of your popping joints and create a personalized treatment plan to address your medical needs. Our office serves Dallas/Fort Worth and the surrounding area. We have medical imaging equipment and physical therapy services on-site to provide you with fast, reliable care. 

We combine up-to-date techniques and equipment with extensive experience to treat every patient who walks through our doors. Our team is comprised of orthopedic surgeons who have knowledge of different parts of the body. From neck to ankle, we can address your concerns. Contact us today to set up a consultation.

Knee pain, leg pain concept by wuestenigel is licensed with CC BY 2.0