Crepitus(Joint Popping)

Overview

What Is Crepitus (Joint Popping)?

In orthopedic medicine and sports medicine, crepitus describes a popping, clicking or crackling sound in a joint. Joint popping sounds may mean that air is moving in the joint, which is usually harmless.

People most often notice crepitus in their knees, but it can also happen in other joints like the shoulder, elbow or neck.

Crepitus with pain can be a sign of wear and tear or injury. If crepitus is painful, you should consult a doctor.

At Aurora Health Care, we offer a range of treatment options for crepitus – from noninvasive therapies like bracing to the latest in minimally invasive surgical techniques.

The Aurora Difference

Experts in Finding Joint Pain’s Cause – and Its Solution

Joint problems are very common, especially as you get older. The team at Aurora Health Care has advanced expertise in pinpointing the cause of crepitus and joint pain so that you can move freely again.

As one of Wisconsin’s largest regional health care systems, we offer:

  • Expert diagnosis: With extensive experience in joint care, we provide a thorough diagnosis. Many times, we can find the cause of crepitus without invasive treatment.
  • Advanced testing and imaging: You’ll have access to advanced diagnostic technology like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), 3-D computed tomography (CT) scans and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). DTI is an innovative tool that helps us analyze the condition of cartilage, the smooth, white material that cushions the ends of bones.
  • Noninvasive and surgical treatment options: Choose from a variety of proven treatments, including bracing, physical therapy and total joint replacement.
  • Convenient locations: With clinics and hospitals across eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, you can see a doctor and find physical therapy close to home. See our locations.
  • Seamless care: Our health system is fully integrated. That means physical therapists, rehabilitation specialists, orthopedists and primary care doctors work closely together on a care plan that’s right for you.

Symptoms and Causes

Joint Popping or Cracking: Symptoms & Signs

Crepitus, or joint sounds, can be a normal part of movement. Many people experience popping joints, especially as they get older. You may notice:

  • Popping or cracking when you bend your knee or elbow
  • Crunching sounds in your knee when you go up or down stairs or kneel
  • Crackling or grinding sounds or a crunching sensation when you move your shoulder
  • Occasional or continual swelling around the joint

Causes of Crepitus or Joint Popping

Often, crepitus is harmless. It happens when air seeps into the soft tissues around the joint (such as the kneecap). When you bend the joint, the air bubbles burst, and you hear a cracking sound.

While most crepitus is harmless, some forms of crepitus signal a problem. If the popping or crunching sound comes with pain, you should see a doctor to evaluate the cause.

Causes of painful joint popping may include:

  • Osteoarthritis: Arthritis is a condition in which cartilage begins to rub away, leaving bones unprotected and creating inflammation. When bones rub and grind, it causes pain and stiffness that usually gets worse with activity. Read more about arthritis.
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFS): Also known as runner’s knee, PFS causes crepitus along with pain behind the kneecap (patella). It can happen when you suddenly increase your activity level and is often caused by running, squatting or jumping. PFS is more common in women than in men. Learn more about knee pain.
  • Torn cartilage: A cartilage tear can happen because of a sports injury, a fall or an accident. Cartilage damage is another possible cause of painful crepitus. Find out more about cartilage damage.

Diagnosis

Exams and Imaging to Diagnose the Cause of Crepitus

At your appointment, we’ll examine the area that’s causing you pain. We’ll also ask about your symptoms and recent activity, including how the joint feels during different movements.

If we suspect PFS is causing knee popping and pain, we may ask about your exercise routine. You can help by describing the pain and letting us know about any recent changes in your activity.

A doctor can usually diagnose PFS from an office examination, but to be sure about the cause of crepitus, we usually order an X-ray or other imaging to visualize the inside of the joint.

Learn more about orthopedic diagnosis.

Treatment

Treating Crepitus in the Knee, Shoulder or Other Joints

Many causes of joint popping and cracking improve with home remedies, like taking anti-inflammatory medications or using the RICE method (rest, ice, compression and elevation). Other causes might require a doctor’s help.

Noninvasive Treatments for Crepitus

Your doctor will talk with you about possible treatments, including:

  • Bracing or splinting: Sometimes, a brace or splint can help align the joint so an injury can heal.
  • Physical therapy: Our physical therapy teams tailor treatment plans to your condition, activities and goals. Get more information about physical therapy.
  • Custom orthotics: Orthotics – special shoe inserts that stabilize the foot and knee – can relieve pain and help you stay active. Learn more about custom foot orthotics.
  • Pain relief: We take pain management very seriously. Handled correctly, pain relief methods can eliminate discomfort and inflammation and may let you get back to your favorite activities safely. Read more about orthopedic pain we treat.

Surgical Options to Eliminate Pain-Causing Crepitus

Some causes of crepitus might require surgical treatment. We’ll advise you on the least invasive treatment to relieve joint pain and minimize future damage. You might consider:

  • Arthroscopic surgery: Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgery that uses small instruments inserted through tiny incisions to access the joint. For PFS, your surgeon can remove bits of damaged tissue or reposition tendons to provide more knee movement. Learn more about treatments for knee pain.
  • Debridement: Some types of PFS and arthritis improve with debridement. In this minimally invasive surgery, the surgeon can smooth damaged cartilage to reduce rubbing.
  • Joint replacement: When arthritis or joint damage is advanced, you might consider joint replacement. Joint replacement surgery implants an artificial joint in place of a damaged joint. Find out more about orthopedic medicine and orthopedic surgery.

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