Monday, September 04, 2006


Cracking Knuckles

When I was in my early teens, much to the annoyance of my mother, I picked up the habit of cracking my finger knuckles. Usually they were crackable only once or twice a day, but I persisted - and guess what, now some 40 years later, my knuckles haven't enlarged or stiffened - in fact I still crack them regularly.

What really happens when we crack our knuckles? I tried to do some research, but either there is some common terminology for this that I haven't heard about or it is one of those issues that has somehow stayed below the radar. There was surprising little available. What I did find suggests that the "popping" sound has to do with gas expanding suddenly in the cartilage - or something like that. Once I asked my (former) doctor, but he didn't know much about it - other than to repeat the mantra that "it probably isn't good for you."

After several years of popping my finger-knuckles, late one night while I was hunched over my desk cramming for a college exam, I suddenly sat back and twisted my neck and shoulders - to be rewarded with multiple cracks all up and down my spine. Wow! I was so surprised at how much physical and mental stress suddenly evaporated. From then on, I worked on cracking my neck and shoulders, my lower back, even my jaw. For some time I was able to crack those last spinal "knuckles" at the base of my skull - boy was that a rush! The more I did it, the better I got at it. Like with my fingers, though I could usually do it only once or twice a day.

The greater my stress level beforehand, the more completely everything seemed to crack. Accompanying the cracking was some type of mental relaxation - some sort of "letting go" of tense muscles. These muscles appear to be connected somehow through the "joints" that are cracked (maybe it's the nerves to these muscles? I don't know, I didn't study anatomy.) I do know that they are unconscious muscles that I do not have direct knowledgeable control over. These cause things like a perpetual frown or scowl (or smile), pursing the lips, clenching the jaw, hunching the shoulders, clenching in the belly, or maintaining a suction in the mouth with the jaw clenched and the tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth. We have hundreds of these muscles and we are usually unaware of whether we keep them perpetually tensed or not, much less are we able to relax them at will. Being able to identify and relax these unconscious muscles provided the positive feedback that made me keep on cracking.

Being a dedicated knuckle-popper, I often notice others who share my dark secret (for sure my mother tried to make me feel guilty about it - as well as everything else). Sometimes movie characters dramatically crack their necks as if to gird themselves to do something that is unusual or challenging. I used to sit in meetings and watch for closest crackers - not many did, but a few seemed to do it automatically, almost reflexively. My son, Z, cracks his lower back - dozens of pops. He says it feels good. I'm quite jealous - that's the one area I've never been able to crack.

At some point in my late thirties or early forties, I realized that my cracking "agility" had declined. My fingers were still crackable, but I was no longer able to consciously make my back or neck crack - except during times of unusual high tension (I learned that I had to mentally relax a bit first, then the cracking would usually finish the process). I really missed that. About five years ago, I noticed my knees, ankles, and even my hips would sometimes crack in the morning when I got out of bed. This too has been accompanied by some vague sense of tension release.

Then I started playing the cello. Almost immediately it was clear that my biggest obstacle (besides my inner critic) was tension - most notably in my fingers, but also in my wrists, elbows, shoulders and spine. Fom the first day I started cracking my finger knuckles, and surprisingly my wrists, and more recently my shoulders and neck (again!). Every morning when I start warming up, I find I have to crack each finger once or twice and both of my wrists a couple times, and sometimes my shoulders and neck. This seems to take care of most of the physical tension issues, leaving me to concentrate on the music.

I look forward to my daily practice sessions not only for the chance to make music, but also to experience that Zen-like tension reduction.

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