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Debunking myths: Cracking joints cause arthritis

PETALING JAYA – Cracking one’s joints will lead to arthritis. Yes or no?

The answer is a resounding “no” from Universiti Malaya Specialist Centre consultant rheumatologist Dr Sargunan Sockalingam

There is no increased prevalence of arthritis between those who crack their knuckles and those who don’t, said Dr Sargunan, who cited a 2011 study published in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

Other numerous studies came to the same conclusion, according to him.

However, while cracking knuckles does not itself cause arthritis, the behaviour may lead to other health consequences.

“There are a number of reports that suggest that this behaviour, other than being annoying to the unfortunate observer, can lead to swollen finger joints and a weak grip.

“So it is best to avoid this habit, as there has been no known proven benefit to date,” he said.

Dr Sargunan also said that there are various theories as to how the act of cracking joints produces that “pop” sound.

“A recent study in Canada indicated that the sound of cracking joints comes from the formation of a cavity within the synovial fluid when the joint is stretched,” he said.

Dr Sargunan did say, however, that the popping sound is still “a bit of a mystery” and that there is “no real answer” as to how it is produced.

Other factors leading to arthritis

Although it is established that cracking joints does not actually cause arthritis, there are other factors that can lead to arthritis.

According to the US National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the word “arthritis” is often used as a general term to refer to any disorder that affects the joints.

There are at least 100 different forms of arthritis recognised today, said Dr Sargunan, who is also the Arthritis Foundation Malaysia president.

He said that the cause of arthritis depends on the disease itself, the most common ones being osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and gout.

Graphic: The Star/Asia News Network

“For instance, osteoarthritis is caused by the wear and tear process that occurs with repetitive use and the ageing process.

“The synovium and cartilage undergo damage and are unable to regenerate fast enough to replace the worn-out surfaces.

“Osteoarthritis is caused by various factors. It could be hereditary. However, more commonly, trauma, sports injury and obesity could predispose one to early osteoarthritis,” Dr Sargunan said.

Another common type of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, is a type of autoimmune disease.

“The immune cells of the body see the synovium, which is an important component of the joint, as foreign tissue and attack it, thereby causing inflammation within the joint,” he said.

“Many autoimmune diseases have both genetic and non-genetic causes. Treatment of these, however, can be initiated once it is correctly diagnosed,” he said, adding that the prognosis, which is the doctor’s judgment on the likely development of a medical condition, is usually good in such cases.

He explained that both types of arthritis cause pain and swelling, and if left untreated, could cause the affected joint to become damaged and eventually deformed.

Prevention and management

Dr Sargunan said that it is difficult for a person to do anything to prevent the development of most forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.

“What is more important is to recognise the form of arthritis as quickly as possible,” he said.

However, committing to healthy lifestyle choices is one way of preventing certain types of arthritis.

Graphic: The Star/Asia News Network

“Osteoarthritis can be prevented by maintaining an ideal body weight and observing a balanced diet. Low impact sports and muscle strengthening exercises would also be beneficial,” he said.

Gout, which is a condition caused by excess uric acid crystal deposits in the joints, can be prevented by reducing levels of uric acid.

According to Dr Sargunan, a purine-free diet could help lessen the risk of gout to some extent.

Contrary to the myth that older people are more affected by arthritis, he shared that different forms of the condition affect people of all age groups.

“Older people tend to suffer from osteoarthritis, so there is some truth to the myth.

“However, rheumatoid arthritis affects mainly women in the reproductive age group and can begin as early as the age of 15.

“Ankylosing spondylitis usually begins to affect the spine of boys as young as 13 years.”

He explained that the misperception that arthritis only affects older people does create difficulty for rheumatologists.

“Many patients present late into the disease due to ignorance and denial. These patients are told that they are too young to suffer from arthritis.

“If one is experiencing persistent symptoms, such as early morning stiffness of the joints, swelling and pain, it is important to pay a visit to the doctor as soon as possible,” he urged.

Published at Fri, 27 Oct 2017 01:23:17 +0000