Nicky Park: Does your body get cracking?

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Stretching in bed feels so darn good. But what if you hear cracking?Photo / Thinkstock
Stretching in bed feels so darn good. But what if you hear cracking?Photo / Thinkstock

Every morning I wake up and twist my back in bed forcing it to crack. My knees make all sorts of noises during yoga and I crunch my knuckles just about every hour. The stretching sound satisfies me. But it's been starting to make me stir. There's long been whispers of these being arthritis-causing habits. I'm wondering if it's my stiff joints crying out, ageing before their time. So I've been asking around a few different professionals to find out what these noises mean and if they're cause for concern.

The Chiropractor: Dr Hayden Thomas

"A lot of people have this image of bones falling apart and breaking," Dr Thomas tells me. But fear not - that cracking that you hear is just a change in pressure around the joint capsule," he explains. "It's gas releasing around the joint, you know, like when you release a cork from a bottle of bubbly?" (That's Dr Thomas's analogy, not mine).

In his professional chiro circles, it's called an "adjustment," and any joint can do it.

This is what's happening when you press you fingers together, forcing your knuckles to crack. Once it's done, you can't get the same noise out of them again for about 30 minutes, until the pressure builds up again.

But there's another kind of crunching you could be hearing and that's called a "tenderness crack". This is when the tendon moves across the bone and "slaps, a bit like an elastic band". Dr Thomas says it's the tendon going back in to place or re-locating. If you rotate a joint and it keeps clicking, this is probably what's happening. Be careful with these ones because they could be hyper-mobile, making them prone to injury.

Dr Thomas says the reason joint cracking feels so good is because you're releasing tension and your body wants to do that.

"There's not been much study in to the damage we can do to ourselves if we force cracking," he says.

"But what has been found is that it does not cause arthritis, despite what a lot of people say. In fact joint manipulation could help prevent the disease.

"If you're just stretching and moving in your normal range of motion that's absolutely fine, those cracks and pops are not doing anything."

The Orthopaedic Surgeon: Ass Prof Gary Hooper

Dr Hooper, back it up - cracking probably doesn't do any real damage. However, the problem he, and a lot of his medical world associates have with chiro theories, is that there's no real evidence to suggest joint adjustment is effective.

"There's no evidence that cracking joints makes them better," Prof Hooper says.

"The problem that surgeons, and great majority of medical practitioners have, is that cracking causes a placebo effect and the patient hears a noise and feels something must be better."

However, Prof Hooper warns this: If you're getting pain or stiffness around a joint then it could be the beginnings of something worse - so get that thing checked out! This is more likely in older folk, but just be aware of your temple.

But - if your cracking isn't causing any discomfort then you're all good to go.

The yoga instructor: Vanessa Greenwood

I met Vanessa for a private yoga lesson. She's a qualified Iyengar yogi and has been practicing her moves since 1993. I've been doing my very best to get to at least one body balance class each week. But I know this isn't enough to compensate for the other forms of phys ed I get in, plus all the desk-bound hours I rack up. I'm embarrassed about the state of my downward dog. Vanessa says I have the hamstrings of an 80-year-old. Oh dear.

"It's such a bizarre concept," she says of all my joints popping like corn.

"From my perspective it's the alignment.

"When you're bringing your muscles in to balance the joints line up, the bones line up and the muscles line up. So in that process you can get that gas release." (You know, the release Dr Thomas told us about.)

So Vanessa reckons it's a good sound - an indicator that your body is getting in to balance. But only if it comes naturally. If she's adjusting your yoga position, or you're holding a stretch then you're all good.

"If you're just after the crack all the time I don't think that's healthy," she says.

Vanessa thinks just about everyone is out of balance because we don't use all the muscles equally. We tend to under-use our belly muscles, forcing our back to do more work, hence more aches in that region.

So how can we make our joints feel joyful?

Vanessa suggests scheduling at least two yoga sessions a week. Make sure you stick around for the stretching after exercise, and then some. When you're at work, sit with a strong spine and make sure your knees are in line with your hips. After hours, take time to lay yourself down flat. I also get a massive kick out of lying on my back, bum pushed up to the wall with my legs straight up - my hammies heart this one. Oh yeah, and treat your bones to a relaxing epsom salt bath once a week. Your skin will soak up the magnesium and your joints will ease up.

Treating your insides kindly will also make your body work better. Ease up on acidic foods in your diet and lean towards an alkaline system (fill your body with stacks of vegies, especially green ones, cut out refined sugar and processed foods).

FYI: I will share more on the acid/alkaline thing soon. And get back to the benefits of a good bath.

Are you a joint cracker? What are your thoughts on yoga?

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Nicky Park

Editor of Life & Style.

Nicky lives to wine, dine and thrive. As Life & Style Editor at the New Zealand Herald online, she feels lucky she can call this work. Nicky crafted her writing skills as a cadet for an Australian news wire. Amongst the coverage of sport, news, finance and courts she found a favourite in features. A stint as a foreign correspondent sent this chipper Aussie across the Tasman, covering the big issues of the Pacific Islands. Every single day Nicky relishes the opportunities she has to mix and mingle with interesting people, feast on delicious food, visit new places and write all about it. Nicky wants everyone to make the most of their minutes, learn lots and live their best life.

Read more by Nicky Park

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