Crepitus

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What is crepitus?

Crepitus is a crackling or popping sound that occurs as a result of tissues rubbing together abnormally. The sound results from an abnormal interaction between air, fluid or bone. A common example of crepitus is when rough surfaces in a joint rub together and result in a popping and crackling sound or an irregular feeling in your joint. Another example is when air escapes from the sinuses and can be felt in the skin overlying a facial bone fracture.

Crepitus is often the result of arthritis or a previous joint injury. However, a crackling or popping sound and irregular feeling in your joint may also result from the presence of air in the tissues, which may be due to a wound or certain types of bacterial infections.

Crepitus can be due to a wide variety of conditions, and associated symptoms can also vary widely. Soft tissue crepitus, due to air inside body tissues, is a serious type of crepitus. Crepitus due to arthritis or joint problems can be a sign of chronic disease or joint damage.

Seek prompt medical care if you have a popping or crackling sound coming from your soft tissues. If your crepitus in a joint is persistent or causes you concern, you should also seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with crepitus?

Crepitus may accompany other symptoms that can vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Crepitus can be broadly grouped into symptoms associated with crepitus in joints, as well as symptoms associated with crepitus due to air in soft tissues.

Musculoskeletal symptoms that may occur along with crepitus

Crepitus may accompany other symptoms affecting the musculoskeletal system including:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness that is often worse in the mornings
  • Redness and warmth of the skin over the joint
  • Reduced mobility
  • Swelling in or around the joint

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, crepitus may be a symptom of or associated with a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Bluish discoloration of the skin or lips
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Difficulty breathing
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Nausea and vomiting

What causes crepitus?

Crepitus is caused by tissues rubbing together in an abnormal way. The most common cause of crepitus is rough cartilage and bone rubbing together in a joint, and the most common cause of this type of crepitus is arthritis or joint injury.

Another common cause of crepitus is when air gets inside soft tissues, which can cause a crackling or popping sound when pressed. The most important causes of this type of crepitus are a hole in the airway or gut or an anaerobic bacterial infection.

Common causes of musculoskeletal crepitus

Crepitus may be caused by rubbing of hard tissues including:

  • Bone fragments
  • Cartilage tears or damage
  • Erosion of cartilage
  • Rough cartilage due to arthritis

Serious or life-threatening causes of crepitus

Subcutaneous (beneath the skin, in the soft tissues) crepitus may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

  • Certain types of bacterial infections
  • Penetrating wound to the chest, back, or abdomen, such as a knife wound
  • Perforation of the gut
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of crepitus

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your crepitus including:

  • When did you first notice your crepitus?
  • Where do you feel crepitus?
  • Do you have other symptoms?
  • Have you had any joint injuries or a history of arthritis?
  • Have you had any surgery or medical procedures recently?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of crepitus?

Subcutaneous crepitus, due to air in the soft tissues, is almost exclusively associated with very serious conditions and can have a variety of life-threatening complications.

Because crepitus can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Chronic or persistent pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty moving a joint or pain moving a joint
  • Disability
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Arthritis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012