Creaking or cracking joints?

So many times I have clients tell me that they have cracking or creaking joints, some pass it off as old age, or just one of those things. Often it is not accompanied by any pain, but it is part of their day to day life.

What is the cracking then? The technical term is crepitus.

Crepitus is the medical term for a grinding, creaking, or grating sound or sensation that occurs when moving a joint. It can be produced by friction between bone and cartilage or the fractured parts of a bone when speaking in the context of bone joints. Crepitus can occur at any age, but more commonly develops as people get older.

In the majority of cases, crepitus develops due to everyday use and changes that occur over time within the joint. It is usually a painless sensation and not of much concern from a medical standpoint. However, if crepitus is associated with pain upon moving the joint, further investigation is often warranted.

Sustaining a significant injury to a joint, such as the shoulder, can lead to the development of crepitus as well. In certain instances, having sensations of popping or clicking in the shoulder joints could signify a potential problem with your shoulder.

What causes shoulder crepitus?

Most of the time the cause of crepitus can be predicted by a person’s age. If they are under the age of 30, chances are that their shoulder clicking sounds are the result of repetitive use or previous injury that has lead to loosening of the shoulder ligaments. This may be seen in young athletes that participate in contact sports. Those over the age of 55 who prevent with crepitus in the shoulder most likely suffer from degenerative changes in the joint itself

The following are some of the common reason for shoulder crepitus development:

Labral tears

The shoulder joint is comprised of a ball and socket which fit into each other effortlessly. A ring composed of dense fibrous tissue surrounds the shoulder joint socket called the labrum. It also serves as an attachment for the ligaments and helps the ball of the shoulder stay in position. If the labrum of the shoulder becomes torn or damaged from any sort of injury or repetitive stress it may result in the formation of crepitus. Those who have painful crepitus due to labral tears and don’t respond physical therapy may require surgery. Tears on the top of the labrum are referred to as a SLAP lesion.

Rotator cuff tears

The rotator cuff is the part of the shoulder joint that is comprised of a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint and helps to keep the head of the upper arm bone firmly within the ball socket. If the rotator cuff tendons become torn, a loose edge within the shoulder can catch on other ligaments or structures in the shoulder leading to painful crepitus. In cases of rotator cuff tendinosis, inflammation can also develop leading to further shoulder joint damage. The inflammatory process of joint is often called bursitis and may cause additional swelling leading to a clicking or popping sensation.

Shoulder dislocation

Typically occurs due to an acute injury, shoulder dislocations are a common cause of shoulder crepitus. Injury to the shoulder leads to the joint becoming looser and lead the ball of the shoulder to slide up or over the edge of the socket. When this ball falls back into place, a snapping or popping sounds can be appreciated.


Due to loss of cartilage surrounding the joint, cushioning that previously lined it is lost. This results in the surfaces of the shoulder bones to rub against each other during movement. The bones of the shoulder are naturally rough in nature and therefore cause clicking, snapping or popping sounds when cartilage is absent.

What are the symptoms of shoulder crepitus?

Symptoms may include sounds or sensations of:

  • Crackling
  • Grinding
  • Cracking
  • Creaking
  • Grating
  • Popping

If these symptoms occur without pain on movement, it is generally not considered a genuine issue.

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