Snap, Crackle, Pop!
We are all accustomed to a few familiar clicks and clunks that accompany our yoga practice. But how do we know when a sound is just a sound, and when it is a symptom of something more serious underlying?
More often than not, that popping sound is the result of 'cavitation' in the joint. Joints that allow movement in the body are synovial joints; structured so that around the joint there is a fluid filled capsule which protects the joint through movement. The fluid capsule has various natural gasses dissolved within them, which, when there is a significant enough change in the pressure of the joint form a cavity resulting in the audible pop. The gasses then gradually dissolve back in as pressure normalises, taking anywhere upto 20 minutes (this is why if you crack your knuckles it wont happen again straight away).
Cavitation doesn't pose any risk to the joint. Infact, it will often feel particularly satisfying as the release of the joint capsule will further stimulate the relaxation of the fibres around the joint capsule. However, this does suggest that the cavitation is only a short term solution to a build up of tension in the area, and there is evidence that repetitive 'cracking' of joints can eventually lead to inflammation and impairment of the area.
Instead, look at your 'cracks' as a cue to area that needs attention. Perhaps it's your knuckles, or perhaps it's your neck or your back. Either way... can you be curious about them? Is there a pattern to your cracks, i.e. do they always occur right at the end of your shift? And are there particular activities that either a) cause your cracks to happen more frequently, or b) relieve your cracks over a longer period.
Can you shift the balance of those activities in your life?
So, if cavitation is normal...when do you need to pay attention?
The main sign that your clunk is more than just cavitation is if the sound is accompanied by any sensation of pain, heat, or tingling.
Pain, even if fleeting, is your bodies way of telling you that it didn't like what just happened. Sensations of heat, and of tingling may be an indication that there's some impact on the nerves. This could be due to misalignment of soft tissues that are causing the free movement of the joint to impinge in some way, or, it could be due to historical injuries and scar tissues that are restricting the movement, it may simply be the way your body is structured! In many cases this pain may actually be the result of your body reshaping your tissues in a positive way, however, it is always worth seeking the advice of a professional at this point. Attention to form will ensure your risks are minimised, but a massage may fix it, or analysis of your movement from an outside perspective may be able to more easily identify the cause of the impingement and support your progress forwards.
Is your 'clunk' is more of a 'thwunk' then there's a good chance that there's either a tendon, or even a large nerve experiencing misalignment. There may be an obvious sensation of something moving over another part, this is commonly experienced in the hips, and this is a strong sign that your muscular system isn't providing the proper support to the area and instead ligaments are carrying the brunt of the movement. The solution here (unsurprisingly!) is to strengthen the surrounding area, using careful repetitions of normal and proper movements, so that you address both the literal strength of the area, but also the proper proprioception and control of the area. Again, here the input of a trained professional will be invaluable. Why not consider a couple of 121 sessions to support you in creating a routine you can bring into your every day life?
At the far end of the scale there may be some level of arthritis, or degeneration in the joint. In this instance, referral for a scan of the area will be the only way to know exactly what is going on in the area, and what the extent of the change might be. However, this does not mean that you have to stop your yoga practice! Simply that you need to consider some extra additions. All the research points to the incredibly protective effects of yoga (when practiced properly) on the health of joints, and its capacity to slow the rate of any subsequent deterioration.