Why Joints Pop

Joints like our knuckles are lubricated with liquid called the synovial fluid. When manipulated, these joints can pop or crack audibly. For half a century, researchers have thought the cracking sound joints under tension make was the result of bubbles in the synovial fluid collapsing. But a new cine magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study shows that the sound is generated during bubble inception and that the cavity persists after the sound. When the bones of the joint are pulled, viscous forces resist their separation. With enough force, the joints separate suddenly, causing a pressure drop in the synovial fluid that forms a vapor-filled cavity in the joint. According to the real-time MRI observations, this is when the sound is generated. The cavity does eventually dissipate, they found, but only well after the pop. The whole joint-cracking process is consistent with the tribonucleation mechanism seen in machinery.  (Image credit: G. Kawchuk et al.; GIF via skunkbear, source video)

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