Many hikers don’t exercise to strengthen their legs because they worry they are hurting their knees. Often the reason for this worry isn’t pain or limitation, but the sound that their knees make. That crinkly, popping, or grinding sound they hear when they extend their knees is called crepitus. It can be a cringe-worthy, nausea-inducing sound that some refer to as grating, creaking, crackling, or even clunking. As awful as it sounds, crepitus is usually harmless.
To understand what’s going on in your knees, you first have to appreciate the anatomy. The knee joint is a hinge joint connecting the femur (thigh bone) and the tibia (shin bone). At the front of the joint is a small bone called the patella, or knee cap. The femur, tibia, and patella connect over a large surface area. A rubbery connective tissue called cartilage lines the bones’ contact areas, which are held together via ligaments.
The sound you hear in your knees could be due to several benign causes. The most likely source of the noise is the bones and cartilage rubbing together. Another reason could be gas bubbles within the joint fluid popping as the joint moves. Crepitus can also come from ligaments that snap or rub over small bumps in the bones that they connect.
The good news is that crepitus does not mean that your knees are weak, broken, or damaged. There’s no correlation between crepitus and injury! So noisy knees alone shouldn’t keep you from exercising or hiking.
When to worry
Crepitus itself isn’t an indicator of knee damage. It’s an innocent bystander in a joint that people rely on for mobility and activity. What might signal a problem with your knee is pain. Hikers usually experience knee pain below or behind the patella. This pain often bothers them when going downhill. Hikers may also feel pain within the joint itself. This discomfort troubles them when climbing uphill, walking upstairs, or standing up from a chair.
Pain at the front of the knee is almost always related to the patellar joint and tendon. Pain within the joint may be due to normal age-related joint degeneration or osteoarthritis. In both cases, exercise is the best medicine for managing these maladies.
If you experience crepitus in your knees without pain, then hike on! Wear earplugs or hum to drown out the noise if it bothers you.
If you’ve got pain as well, then it’s time to build strength in your legs to support your knee joints. (Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.) Need to put together a plan to stop letting your knees limit you and finally conquer your dream hike? Let’s talk and get you started on your personalized program today!