Crepitus is when there is a sensation or noise when you move a joint which can be described as clicking, cracking, creaking, crunching, grating or popping.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

Summary

Crepitus is more common as you get older, although you can experience it at any age.

Your joints can crack or pop from time to time so, in most cases, it’s nothing to be worried about. However, if you have pain or discomfort as well, it could be a sign that you have an underlying medical condition.

Crepitus can affect any joint in the body. The sound may be muffled or easily heard. It’s most commonly found in your:

  • Knees
  • Hands
  • Feet
  • Lower back
  • Hips
  • Shoulders

Causes of crepitus

There are many causes including:

  • Bubbles of air popping inside your joint – this is the noise produced if you crack your knuckles and is painless
  • Your bones rubbing against each other, usually caused by arthritis – often a chronic (long-term) pain or discomfort
  • Snapping of tendons or ligaments over the bony surfaces of your joint which can sometimes be painful

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Conditions related to crepitus

Crepitus is a symptom of these common conditions:

  • Osteoarthritis – due to your bones rubbing against each other because cartilage is damaged or degenerated – though not everyone with arthritis will experience crepitus
  • Tendonitis – injury and inflammation of a tendon, such as a tennis elbow
  • An injury can cause crepitus in the knee, such as a meniscal tear – a common sports injury
  • Baker's cyst

Crepitus may be a symptom of other forms of joint damage and arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis and gout.

If you have a condition, such as tendonitis, that has caused inflammation around a joint, you may experience crepitus alongside joint pain and restricted movement. Other common inflammatory joint conditions include:

  • Bursitis
  • Tenosynovitis
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome
  • Temporomandibular joint disorders

In some cases, crepitus can be experienced if you have scleroderma. This is a rare condition that causes the skin and connective tissues to harden and tighten. You may experience crepitus sensations as the muscles and tendons rub against the hardened tissues.

Getting a diagnosis for crepitus

If you're experiencing crepitus with pain, swelling or discomfort, you should see your GP.

Your GP will perform a physical examination of your joint. They may refer you for other tests and scans to investigate further or to confirm a diagnosis, such as:

  • X-ray
  • MRI scan
  • CT scan
  • Bone scan
  • Blood tests – a sample of your blood will be analysed for signs of infection and inflammation
  • Antibody tests – to see if autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis could be causing your symptoms
  • Joint aspiration – a needle is inserted into your joint and a sample of the synovial fluid is taken for further investigation

Treatments for crepitus

In most cases, you won’t need to have treatment for crepitus. Applying ice to the joint and taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is usually enough to alleviate the pain and inflammation. However, if you have other symptoms that are affecting your everyday life, your doctor might recommend:

  • Medication or steroid injections to treat the underlying problem – such as treatment for arthritis or inflammation
  • Arthroscopy (keyhole surgery) to investigate your joint or repair damage
  • Joint replacement (such as hip or knee replacement) in severe cases or when your joint is badly damaged

You may need to make adjustments to your exercise routine after your treatment. To prevent your crepitus symptoms returning, you should avoid activities that inflict a lot of impact on your joints and work out with lighter weights.

Frequently asked questions

What does crepitus sound and feel like?

Crepitus is a sensation or noise when you move a joint. You may experience it as clicking, cracking, creaking, crunching, grating or popping. The noise could be muffled or heard by others.

What is crepitus a sign of?

Crepitus becomes more common as you get older. In most cases, it’s caused by bubbles of air popping inside your joint which is harmless.

If you’re also experiencing discomfort and pain, your crepitus may be a sign of an injury or underlying medical condition. You may experience crepitus if you have joint damage, such as arthritis or gout, or a condition which results in inflammation around the joint, such as tendonitis.

Does crepitus go away?

In most cases, crepitus will improve without the need for medical treatment. Applying ice to the area and taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, will usually be enough to alleviate your pain and inflammation.

If your crepitus is affecting your day-to-day life, your doctor may recommend treatment to help with the symptoms.

Can exercises help crepitus symptoms?

Exercises may help with your crepitus, but you should see a doctor first to understand the cause of your symptoms.

You may find it useful to talk to a physiotherapist if you have pain and inflammation around your joints. Exercise and stretching have been shown to reduce joint pain in conditions that cause crepitus such as osteoarthritis and tendonitis.

Should I worry about crepitus?

Your joints can crack or pop from time to time, so crepitus is usually nothing to be worried about. However, if you're experiencing crepitus with pain, swelling or discomfort, you should see your GP.

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