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Snap, Crackle, Pop

Decoding the popping joints in your feet

The fact that it doesn’t sound like what it really is, only adds to the disturbance we feel when our feet do their impression of a crackling fire. The most common form of joint popping sounds like bone and cartilage snapping into pieces. Mercifully, it’s nothing of the sort, at least not most of the time.

The path to diagnosis forks at the pop. Was it painful? Or just a sound? The difference informs podiatrists of what kind of action to take if there’s an issue, or if everything is just as it should be.

When not to be concerned

In most cases, when there’s not any pain or instability, there’s no need for treatment. While it might sound unpleasant, a perfectly functioning joint can snap and pop from time to time without incurring any damage. Then what’s making all that noise?

Synovial fluid. This slippery bone and cartilage lubricant releases oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide when joints are stretched. That gruesome popping sound is the gas bubble bursting, and despite folklore, is completely harmless.

Arthritis. Cartilage in non-arthritic joints allows the connecting points to move smoothly and silently against each other. Without that cushion, the roughness of bone to bone contact can be audible.

Getting back on track. Sometimes during motion, a tendon or ligament will slip out of the groove in the bone that typically keeps it in place. When this happens, it’s akin to letting go of a rubber band — snap!

Warnings from your feet

Pain is like a warning light on the dashboard of your car, so when it pops and hurts it’s time to pay attention. Noisy and painful feet can be the result of prior injuries, or emerging conditions. Finding the source is vital to avoiding further injury, and a proper course of treatment.

Painful popping can be the result of a simple sprain, requiring nothing more than a dose of rest, or a much more serious injury necessitating surgery and rehabilitation. Below are a few common, but serious causes of foot noises.

Morton’s neuroma. Wearing high heels, shoes that fit too tightly, or participating in high impact sports — anything that puts abnormal pressure on the toes and balls of your feet — can lead to Morton’s neuroma, which is swelling around the nerves leading to the toes. Symptoms include stinging, burning, numbness, and joint popping.

Tendon subluxation and dislocation. This is the bad kind of snapping back into place. Subluxation occurs when the tendon abnormally falls out from the groove in the bone. If the tendon fails to snap back into place, it’s known as a dislocation. Along with the uncomfortable popping, joint instability is another sign of these tendon maladies.

Locked joint. If your ankle pops and locks into a position there might be bone fragment, or cartilage preventing a healthy range of motion, and causing a popping sound when the joint is moved.

Ruptured tendon. Your feet and ankles are full of tendons, such as the most famous tendon of all, the Achilles. Each tendon is like a string on a marionette — if one breaks, the appendage drops. Usually ruptured tendons are caused by sudden overstretching, such as missing a step, or rolling your ankle over a curb. Increasing ankle strength and flexibility is recommended by podiatrists as a preventative measure.

Find a translator

Dr. Nina Coletta speaks the crackling language of your feet. Thanks to a Rosetta Stone of diagnostic techniques, she’ll translate those snaps and pops into friendly, digestible verbiage. If you’re experiencing any of these painful symptoms, or simply want to keep your feet in good working order, her friendly staff is on hand to answer your questions right now.

Nina L. Coletta, DPM, PA

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