Shoulder Popping, Clicking And Cracking: Is It Serious?

The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body with a lot of structures around it. It is also the most unstable joint of the body because of its high mobility.

What Can Cause Shoulder Popping?

1. Moving Tendons

Tendons join muscles to bones. After staying in a position for a long time like fixing a bookshelf or painting a house, you may hear a click or crack sound.

This sound may be due to the tendons going back into position and as they do so, they rub against the bones which produce the sounds.

2. Cavitation

Studies have shown that when we ‘crack’ our knuckles, bubbles form in the synovial fluid of the bursae (a process called cavitation) and the sounds we hear may be due to the popping of these bubbles found in the fluid-filled sac.

3. Bursitis

A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that is found at your joints. The bursae lubricate the bones at the joints as they move on each other to reduce friction.

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When this bursa gets inflamed, it causes a “pop” sound when you move your shoulder. Bursitis, which is inflammation of the bursae, may also cause pain and warmth around the shoulder joint.

4. Labral Tear

The labrum is a soft tissue found at the shoulder joint. It is located between the head of the humerus and the scapula, it joins other structures like the ligaments and muscles to stabilize the joint. You can say they are ‘pillows’ for the surfaces of the bones at the joints.

A labral tear can lead to partial dislocation of the shoulder joint. One of the signs of a labral tear is hearing a pop-like sound.

This tear is usually accompanied by difficulty moving the shoulder joint, pain, clicking and popping sounds which may occur from the movement of the bones in the joint.

5. Muscle Weakness

Muscles around the shoulder joint stabilize the joint and ensure it is in place. When these muscles get weak, they lose the strength to maintain the bones in the appropriate position which may cause the bones to make a “pop” sound.

6. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects the articulating surfaces of the bones at a joint. In arthritis, the cartilage that allows for easy movement of the bones over themselves wears away which leads to the bones rubbing against each other.

7. Fractures or Dislocations

The shoulder is the most regularly dislocated joint in the body.

Trauma to the shoulder from falls, collisions or accidents can cause shoulder dislocation or/and a fracture. This can cause popping sounds due to the resulting joint instability.

When Is It Serious?

Many times, it is something less serious like popping air bubbles in the joint. Other times, it can be a sign of something more serious.

If it happens too frequently or you have other symptoms like shoulder pain, stiffness or swelling, you should see your doctor. Diagnostic tests like an X-ray or MRI may be recommended to rule out and pinpoint the exact cause of the joint sound.

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How To Care For Your Shoulder

1. Rest

These sounds may be a signal to rest or stretch.

When you hear the sounds, do not try and move the shoulder joint looking for pain, rest the shoulder joint for a while or if you feel pain, you can wear shoulder support or arm sling to reduce movement at the shoulder joint if you have an injury.

2. Ice

If there is associated pain or swelling with the sound, do not rush to massage the shoulder or move it around expecting to hear the sound again. Instead, crush ice in a damp towel or an ice pack and place around your shoulder joint for 15 minutes.

This can be done 3 to 4 times a day, every 4 hours.

3. Analgesics

Analgesics or pain-relieving medications can be taken orally or topically. Some of these topical ointments come in the form of gels and have diclofenac, ibuprofen or ketoprofen as its active ingredient.

4. Postural Education

Our posture is very important when it comes to joint sounds. The shoulder is connected to the upper back. We have hobbies or jobs that tend to put us in an awkward position like carpentry work or typing and writing for long periods of time.

Abnormal posture to the upper back places a lot of strain on the shoulder joint. In order to avoid this, you should adopt a proper posture.

5. Stretching Exercises

stretching exercises

These exercises can be done for shoulder sounds that are not accompanied by pain or swelling. If you have pain or any symptoms, ensure you see a doctor or a physiotherapist before you do any exercises as it may cause more harm.

Cross Arm Stretches

  • This can be done while sitting or standing
  • Place your left arm across your body to point towards the right
  • Place your right hand on the elbow of your left arm
  • Pull the left elbow with your right hand towards your chest
  • Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the other arm

Upper Back Stretches

  • This can also be done sitting or standing
  • Bend your elbows and form a fist with both hands
  • Let your fists touch each other in front of your chest
  • Take your elbows to the back
  • You will feel the stretch in your shoulders
  • Hold for 5 seconds and release

Over-The-Head Shoulder Stretches

  • Stretch your two hands over your head interlocking your fingers
  • Twist your wrist in such that your palm faces the ceiling
  • Hold for 10 seconds and release

6. Strengthening Exercises

Isometric Exercises

  • You can place a pillow or a rolled-up towel under your right armpit
  • Contract your muscles to keep the pillow or towel in place under your armpit
  • Hold for 10 seconds and release
  • Repeat with the other shoulder

Arm Circles

  • While standing, stretch your arms out parallel to the ground
  • Slowly rotate your arms moving only with the shoulders
  • Do 5 – 10 circles clockwise and then anti-clockwise

Wall Push-Ups

  • Stand in front of a wall with your palms touching the wall and your elbows bent
  • This can be done in front of an open door with your palms on either side of the doorframe
  • Do a push up on the wall as you will do a push up on the floor
  • Repeat 10 times

Conclusion

Many times, a popping sound in the shoulder is nothing to worry about. However, if it becomes frequent and is associated with pain and swelling, it may be a sign that something is wrong. If you experience it frequently or have additional symptoms, you should see your doctor.

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