Hello, my name is Fred, and I crack my knuckles. I also crack my toes, my neck, my wrists, my ankles and, if I get the angle just right, my elbows. I've been doing this since I was 12 years old, and I'm now just a few months shy of 75. Why am I writing to you? Because my brand-new wife (my old wife died five years ago) thinks I'm harming myself. She also just finds it annoying, I suspect, but what she says is that I'm going to get arthritis. I've heard this one before. What I told her is that if I don't show any signs of arthritis by this point (and I don't), I can't see where there's anything to worry about here. But I also told her I would write to you to get the final word. So what's the story, morning glory? Am I destroying my fingers?
Fred: If you'll pardon me just a second, I need to...ah, there. That's better. Like you, Fred, I've been cracking my knuckles for as long as I can remember, and I find that if I don't crack them first I'm more or less unable to type on a keyboard. Oh, I could type, I suppose, but my fingers would feel stiff and, I don't know, off somehow. So the first thing I do when I sit down at my desk is fold my fingers together, palms facing away from me, and get those joints a jumpin'. It's a very satisfying sound, and my fingers suddenly feel more limber, more alive. Actually, the best way to describe the pleasure is that it's comparable to a good fart or a good belch.
The thing is, neither farting nor belching is known to cause trouble down the road. On the contrary, they both relieve pressure and, as a gratifying side effect, disgust those around us. Knuckle-cracking, on the other hand...well, wait a minute, it also relieves pressure. What happens when you crack your knuckles is that the synovial fluid inside the joints forms little air bubbles as you lower the pressure in there by pulling on the ligaments. Finally, when you've decreased the pressure enough, they do that ol' snap, crackle, pop. Think of it as nature's own Bubble Wrap. Or think of it as being on crack, because it can be quite addictive.
Myself, I'm high on crack at all times, which is to say I will crack my knuckles again as soon as they have recovered from the previous crack, which takes 10 minutes or so. Like you, I also crack my toes and ankles. And I've heard of people who crack a lot more than that: fingers, toes, wrists, ankles, elbows, knees, shoulders, neck, jaw, spine, sternum. Basically, if there's a joint, it can be cracked, but not by everybody, apparently. Only we happy few with joints that are neither all that tight nor all that loose are allowed this privilege. But are we all going to wind up in traction someday?
Not necessarily. As you can imagine, there hasn't been a tremendous amount of research on this subject, and the research that has been done, because there was so little of it, has been inconclusive. But nobody has proven a connection between arthritis and knuckle-cracking. (To avoid arthritis, you need to choose your parents carefully and die young.) What has been proven, to some researchers' satisfaction, is that a lifetime of knuckle-cracking can lead to swollen hands and reduced grip strength. So why risk it? Because it's so pleasurable, damn it! But just in case (and to cover my ass), I hereby advise everybody except me to stop doing it immediately.
To join me in the Carpal Tunnel of Love, write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING ST., MADISON, WI 53703. OR CALL 251-1206, EXT. 152. OR E-MAIL MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.