Saturday, October 22, 2016

Creepy Crepitus, The Strange Scary Sounds You Hear When You Move

I woke up in the middle of the night troubled by a dream that my teeth were crumbling, my bones dissolving. I walked downstairs to get a drink of water, my heart already running fast, when I heard a creaking sound. At first my anxiety amplified, then I realized it was just my knees. It wasn’t a scary sound, but what has become the familiar, occasional creaking as my bony knee caps and ligaments loudly reminded me that I didn’t stretch my thigh muscles as much as I needed to.

Strange noises that come from our bodies—creaking, crackling, crunching, grinding, popping, and snapping—are known as crepitus. My clients find them creepy, or sometimes downright scary, but the noises don’t usually signify as much destruction as people assume. In this article, I’ll explain what these noises mean and what you can do to improve your body’s health so they aren’t so frightening.

“The popping sounds from my knees must be my arthritis. It must be getting so bad that the bones are rubbing together.” I’ve heard that sentiment dozens of times as clients try to give an explanation to grinding. Fortunately, the real reason isn’t as destructive. Granted, arthritis is commonplace, especially as we get older, but it would have to be very advanced to get to the point where bones actually rub together. It also helps to know that arthritis doesn’t correlate to pain. Many people have arthritis that doesn’t cause pain or other symptoms.

A common cause of crepitus is gasses escaping from joints or muscles, like the sound made when cracking knuckles. Unless the sounds are accompanied by pain or swelling or unless they start after an injury, they are generally considered harmless—even if they are loud.

Another cause of a popping sound is when ligaments or tendons snap over a joint. This happens when a ligament or tendon isn’t flexible enough to stretch around the joint, and often occurs when stretching hip flexors. There are nine hip flexors; to thoroughly stretch them all requires a variety of movements. Since few of us (me included) don’t regularly do all these movements, the tendons can lose flexibility. One way of avoiding the snapping is to stop stretching and moving less. I don’t recommend that! My advice for popping tendons is to limit the range of movement to just before the pop and to stretch regularly to this point. You can develop the awareness of sensations to feel for and avoid the pop. When I stretch regularly, my tendons get healthier and over time (it’s not an overnight fix by any means) my pop-free range of motion increases.

A similar noise is caused by calcification of the tendons. It most often occurs in the tendons of the shoulder, but any tendon can be affected. Calcium salts are deposited in the tendons of muscles that are overused when there is lack of blood flow. Chronically tense shoulders are a prime environment. Based on the grinding sounds that I hear when I roll my shoulders, I have a salt mine inside my tendons. It’s not too surprising since I use my arms a lot in my work.

However, I was once able to dissolve the calcifications in my shoulders and had a week of noise-free shoulder rolls. That was after taking a three-day undulation workshop. By simply moving my body fluidly for hours, my shoulders—and knees and fingers and every other joint in my body—worked out all their inflexibilities and crunchies. Knowing the cause of crepitus—and more importantly, knowing that it doesn’t have to be permanent—takes the fright out of these disconcerting noises.

If you want to read about something really scary, click the link to this article I wrote nine years ago titled Scary Sarcopenia about the very real danger of losing muscle mass as we age. But don’t let it give you nightmares either. You can fight the sarcopenia monsters with regular strength training.