Like any dance teacher, Christopher Busbin witnesses his students' popping joints and often experiences his own. "My shoulders were always cracking, and I thought it was from torn rotator cuffs," he says. Busbin, who teaches at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Birmingham, Alabama, saw a massage therapist, who discovered that the stress in his joints was caused by overworked trapezius muscles in his back. "Now that I know the real source of the problem, I can help prevent it by addressing it myself," he says.
Joints pop and crack when pockets of air build up inside the body, a result of misalignment, gaseous release or impingement of connective tissue. Anneliese Burns Wilson, director of ABC for Dance, which makes The Body Series books for dancers, says that frequent body cracks are normal. “I believe that when the body cracks, it's making adjustments to bring itself back to correct alignment," she says.
Dancers are more prone to joint popping than less-active people, especially around the feet, ankles, shoulders and elbows, which makes it difficult to decipher whether a noise is dangerous or harmless. Even more questionable is when dancers actually force a joint to pop. The ability to tell the difference between an innocent sound and a harmful one is key.
Wilson does not advise intentional, repetitive joint cracking, especially out of habit. Deborah Vogel, neuromuscular and dance medicine instructor at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, also warns to never allow a peer to manipulate body cracks. “It's one thing when a dancer innocently twists her own spine with little force, but I would never allow someone else to touch my neck, back and ankles," she says.
Popping sensations that indicate problems are usually accompanied by pain, swelling or a decreased range of motion, stemming from hyperextension or strain of ligaments and tendons. This can result in a “twanging" sensation, not unlike if you plucked a guitar string too hard. Pain like this should never be ignored, because it can lead to sprain or tears in the involved ligaments and tendons. If left untreated, they may require physical therapy. See an orthopedic specialist if pain persists for several weeks.
Preventing dancers from hyperextending into their joints is the best way to prevent popping. Vogel says that flexible dancers often push into their knees when standing, causing the rest of their joints to misalign. Wilson warns that knee joints hold the most potential danger. “A knee making sounds could be a sign of misalignment of the patella; an indication that there is wearing down of the cartilage underneath the kneecap," she says.
Extreme hyperextension often causes imbalances in muscle strength, which can force a joint to track improperly. One way to combat this is for dancers to cross into other styles; for example, a ballet student taking modern dance to work on parallel positions. Be sure that during stretching, students aren't dropping down into joints, but working the muscles actively.
For Busbin, tips like these have saved him from pain. “As dancers, we put our bodies through a lot over the years," he says. “Injuries like these can creep up on the best of us."