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Why Do My Knees Pop and Crack?

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Q

I’ve noticed recently that my knees make cracking or popping sounds when I’m walking upstairs. Is this normal or should I be concerned?

A

It’s sort of normal—in that, for many, noisy knees happen with age. But, yes, you should have your knees checked out by your primary care doctor. A simple X-ray might be useful in identifying whether you have early knee osteoarthritis (OA). A recent study found that people who hear grating, cracking or popping sounds in or around their knee joints–a condition known as crepitus–are at increased risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knees. The more often you feel or hear the cracking in your knees, the more likely you are to develop the symptoms.

The study, led by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, followed 3,500 people who were at high risk of developing knee osteoarthritis (typical risk factors include being over age 45 and/or overweight or obese). Researchers analyzed data from those who did not have the combination of frequent knee pain and evidence of OA on their X-rays in a given knee. In this group, crepitus predicted the development of symptomatic knee OA within one year. Researchers also found that 75% of those who developed symptomatic knee OA were the people who had both “noisy” knees and evidence of knee OA upon X-ray—but didn’t have frequent knee pain.

Why it’s important: Many people have signs of osteoarthritis on X-rays well before they begin to feel pain and stiffness. The study suggests that “noisy” knees are an early predictor of knee osteoarthritis. If people with noisy knees are identified earlier, their doctors may begin interventions to prevent or delay the development of frequent knee pain. Those interventions might include losing weight, exercising and modifying shoe wear (for example, switching to shoes with good arch support for people who have flat feet). These interventions have not been tested yet, but there is little downside to implementing these changes.

Editor’s note: There are effective ways to beat knee pain without surgery. To learn more, read here.

Source: Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, MD, MSc, assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, physician at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, both in Houston. Date: August 4, 2017 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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