You may not look or feel your age most days, but there’s nothing like a little snap, crackle, and pop of your joints to remind you how many candles there are on the cake. As we get older, we almost start to creak when we get up after sitting for a while or physically exerting ourselves. While unfortunate, it’s quite common. Most of the sounds are categorized under the term ‘crepitus,’ which pretty much includes all of the crackling or popping sounds we hear as we get older. While it’s more common as the years go by, popping or cracking knees can happen to anyone at any age.
There are several reasons why your knees pop. One of the most likely causes is called cavitation, which results from a change in the joint pressure that allows carbon dioxide to form gas bubbles in your knee joint, creating a small cavity. When the cavity closes suddenly, it’s like popping a balloon, and you hear that familiar popping noise.
Another cause of popping is that the muscles attached to the knee can pull your kneecap off-center. As you flex and extend your knees on the stairs, the popping is probably more likely to happen because the kneecap slides out of and into place again. As we experience an increased number of jobs that include sitting for many hours a day, we often find that the frequent dormancy causes hips to get tight and muscles in our thighs to weaken. Both can lead to increased popping.
Just being more active doesn’t make you any less prone to those annoying sounds. In fact, they can be common in athletic women whose sport of choice requires frequent or continued knee flexion. For instance, runners, hikers, and cyclists are prone to increased pops.
And finally, if you’ve got some percussion going on as you navigate stairs, you may have your wider hips to blame. The female pelvis causes women to have more issues at the knees, at least in linear (forward) movement, including kneecap misalignment that can cause popping thanks to a greater Q angle. That’s the measure between two different lines that, for women, is greater than men because we were designed to have more ease at childbirth.
If it’s just a noisy nuisance, you may find success in reducing it with better stretching and strengthening, specifically for the thigh muscles that attach to the medial side of your knee. Using a foam roller on your outer hips and thighs may also reduce the noise. A bonus is that doing more stretching and strengthening can prevent more serious injuries as well.
The good news is the exercises that will help are easy to do at home with minimal equipment. It is the last 20-30 degrees in motion that strengthens that inner quadriceps muscle. Shoot for tensing that muscle on extension 15-20 times per set. Work up to 3 or 4 sets. Do them daily for a week or two and see if you’re noticing any positive difference.
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By temporarily modifying your exercise and creating more strength on your knees’ medial side, you can ease some of the recurring pain. Adding more flexibility at the hips will allow you to release the pull on the kneecap. If there’s more discomfort going on and the limited range of motion exercise and stretching and foam rolling don’t provide relief, see an orthopedic physician to assess fully what’s happening. Allowing rubbing to continue can contribute to the onset of osteoarthritis.
While most of the creaking and popping sounds aren’t signs of anything other than an aging and a well-used body, they can sometimes be an indication of something more serious going on. For example, soft tissue crepitus, or air inside our body tissues, can be a sign of chronic disease or joint damage. If you suspect the noises you’re hearing are coming from your soft tissues, you should book an appointment with your physician to get it checked out. The noises can also be the result of some sort of trauma like falling on your knee. If you have persistent pain in addition to popping, you could have an injury to your patella or meniscus, and actively seeking treatment can save you pain later on.
As you age, you’ll notice creaks and groans that weren’t there before. While it might make you feel older, it’s usually not cause for concern. The best advice is to know your body and pay attention to the changes. Even if there are more than you can keep track of without writing them down!