Snap, crackle, pop Something you want to hear over your breakfast, not over your shoulder. But joints can be fickle, no less than the shoulder, which is the most mobile in the body.
But how do you know if shoulder popping, clicking, cracking and crunching during exercise and regular daily movement is cause for concern or just normal body noise?
If pain is involved, your first stop is a medical professional. Even in the absence of pain, a chat with your doctor is a good idea to help rule out any potential problems down the road. Read on to learn more about common causes of shoulder clicking.
Why does my shoulder pop?
Cracking and crunching sounds can escape your shoulders for a variety of reasons.
1. Gas pressure
Like your knuckles, some shoulders are simply “cavities” — or gas-filled — thanks to fluid that secretes and helps lubricate the joints. After the initial movement or repetition during exercise, the joint capsule expands, causing a rapid burst of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide gas.
2. Wear and tear
“As we age – or even for those who are more active – the cartilage around our joints can wear down,” says Dr. Scott Weiss, DPT, CSCS, ATC, owner and director of BodhiZone, New York. “Instead of a nice, smooth paved road, it’s more like a pothole-filled road. Because things aren’t smooth, the joints don’t slide easily, causing lots of cracks and creaks. It can also be a sign of arthritis.”
Overuse and repetitive motion can also cause bursitis or tendinitis. “When you move or rotate your shoulder, the swollen or inflamed tendon of the bursa can actually rub against the acromion bone, causing you to hear a click or small crack in the shoulder,” says Elan M. Reznick, MD, MBA, FAAOS, is the chief medical officer of Connecticut Orthopedic Specialists, an associate professor of orthopedics at Yale University School of Medicine, and a volunteer of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
3. Body composition
Your body shape can directly affect body movements and any resulting noise. For example, some people are naturally loose, or double, jointed. “In certain positions for this body type — especially when lifting weights — the shoulder will slide partially out of the socket, say in a bench press, and then snap back while bringing the arms down,” Reznick says.
Or, as in Weiss’s “hole” analogy, bones can also create speed bumps. Weiss explains that in this case the shoulder pops and clicks as the ligaments and tendons pass over the bone. This can occur with regular movement, but it can also be an indication of body misalignment or muscle weakness. “The stronger the muscles around the joint, the less this happens,” says Weiss.
Other anatomically-related shoulder popping and cracking can be caused by poor posture, rounded shoulders (thanks to a lot of forward activity like texting and computer use), and muscle imbalances.
4. Unnatural movement
Abnormal movement patterns can also lead to shoulder popping and crunching. “Think about the difference between us and the apes,” says Reznick. “Monkeys can hang from their arms all day because their shoulders are anatomically different from ours.
“When you begin exercises where your arms are behind you, such as the butterfly stroke in swimming or overhand pitching in baseball, this unnatural movement often leads to shoulder popping, as well as pain and injury over time.”
5. Tight muscles
Shoulder popping and clicking can also result from friction caused by muscles rubbing against bones. An example Weiss cites is a tight muscle wrapped around a bony protuberance, which can have a bow-stringing effect resulting in a snapping sound. Muscle strengthening and stretching have been shown to prevent this pain-free but recurring anomaly, according to a published study Journal of Muscle, Ligament and Tendon.
Clicking or snapping of the shoulder, whether sudden or gradual, can be the result of a shoulder injury, such as a tear, dislocation, inflammation, or injury.
When should I see a doctor for shoulder clicking?
Popping of the shoulder and clicking with pain and swelling on one side means that a doctor must be consulted. But even if you don’t have pain or swelling in your shoulder joint, persistent clicking or popping is a good reason to check in with your doctor. A diagnostic X-ray or MRI scan may be needed to determine the root cause and develop a proper treatment plan.
“Sounds coming from the body can mean a lot of different things,” Weiss says. “It’s important to listen to your body and, if something’s lingering, get it checked out. Catching it early can prevent a lot of waste and decay in the body. Really, if you see — or hear — something, say something.”