You may not look or feel your age most days, but there’s nothing like creaky joints to make you consider your chronological years on the planet. But popping or cracking knees can happen to anyone at any age.
According to Dr. Armin Tehrany, an orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care in New York City, a likely cause is kneecap misalignment, which is more common in women than men. The wider female pelvis, designed by nature for childbirth, causes the muscles that attach to the knee to pull the kneecap off center, and since the knees are bent when climbing stairs, popping or cracking can happen as the kneecap slides out of place and back into place.
What’s more, those annoying sounds are common in people who are active, especially runners or cyclists, whose sports require continual knee bending and may contribute to tight hip muscles. If the only bother is the sound, stretching or foam rolling outer hips and thighs and strengthening inner thigh muscles (try Pilates or barre class) may alleviate it.
However, if the knee popping becomes uncomfortable or painful — and you begin to notice it when you go down the stairs too — Tehrany recommends seeing a doctor, preferably an orthopedic surgeon, to assess what’s going on. “If the malalignment becomes moderate or severe with aging, the patella can rub against the femur so often that the arthritic process can begin, resulting in osteoarthritis,” he says. “There are also rare possibilities, like a loose body in the knee joint or a meniscus tear.”