The sound your toe joints make when you bend or crack them can be harmless, or they can be a signal of serious health issues like arthritis, especially if other symptoms are present. Other conditions that can cause cracking toes include past toe injuries, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, bone spurs, and gout.
Why Joints Crack and Pop
There's a few reasons why joints crack and pop. Mostly, it's caused by gas escaping from the space between your joints. The scientific term for that knuckle-cracking, joint-popping sound comes from a process known as articular release of the metatarsophalangeal (MCP) joint. During an articular release, two surfaces that come together to form a joint—the metatarsal and the distal phalange, in the case of toes—come apart quickly beyond their normal range of motion.
Theories about what makes the sound when the joint parts in this process include:
Escaping gas: The leading theory is that the sound that comes from cracking knuckles is a release of tiny gas bubbles that build up in the synovial fluid—a lubricating fluid between joints.1 These gas bubbles consist of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide that build up in the synovial fluid over time.2 When the joint is pulled apart, these bubbles are released and pop, making a cracking sound. This also explains why you can't pop a joint again immediately—it takes time for more gas to build up.
Moving pieces: When you pull or move your joint, there are a number of moving pieces. The tendon moves slightly out of place and then snaps back to its original position. Ligaments move too. These sounds may contribute to the strange but satisfying sound you hear.
Rough spots: In some cases, the popping or cracking sound that is produced when you move your joints may be the result of something less benign. Arthritic joints can make noises when smooth cartilage runs against a rough joint surface.
Why Your Finger Joints Click, Snap, and Pop
Underlying Issues that May Cause Toe Popping
While joint cracking and toe popping is generally a normal process, there can be times when the sound indicates a bigger problem. When considering whether toe popping is normal or a cause for concern, the key is noting whether that sound is accompanied by other symptoms.
Past Toe Injuries
Sometimes, a cracking toe may make that noise because it's aggravating an old injury like a fracture or severely stubbed toe. Cracking or popping you can hear as your toes move is one of the signs that can alert you to a broken toe, especially if the sound comes with pain or swelling. You may want to see your doctor if that happens. There are few treatments for broken toes outside of taping, ice, and elevation. In some cases, though, a broken toe can become more complicated and require more in-depth medical intervention.3
5 Causes of Pain in the Big Toe Joint
The noise that comes with popping a toe joint may be due, at least in part, to arthritis. Osteoarthritis, also known as wear-and-tear arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis can both cause deterioration of the bone, particular in joints. The popping sound you hear as the joint moves could be coming from the sound of smooth cartilage rubbing against rough, deteriorating bone.4 Common symptoms, besides the sound, of arthritis include changes in the appearance of the toes, pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Is There Relief for Arthritis in Toe Joints?
Bone spurs are tiny projections of bones that develop along the ridge where bones meet in the joint. Like arthritis, a popping sound can be heard when the smooth cartilage meets the rough surface of the bones spur. Bone spurs can cause pain when you move, and that may be a sign of osteoarthritis.5
Swollen, painful joints that pop or hurt can be a sign of several conditions. If your toe swelling and pain seem to mostly affect the big toe, it could be a sign that you have gout. Gout is a form of arthritis that occurs when uric acid crystals collect in the joints, causing painful irritation that can come and go.
How Arthritis Affects Feet
Our feet are the workhorses of the body, with more than 30 joints and 28 bones in each foot.4 More than 100 types of arthritis can affect the foot and ankle, most often osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis, and pain and swelling are common complaints.6
Foot joints that are commonly affected by arthritis include:4
The joint where the ankle and shinbone meet
The three joints of the foot that involve the heel bone, the inner mid-foot bone, and the outer mid-foot bone
The joint of the big toe and foot bone
Symptoms of Arthritis in Feet
The symptoms of arthritis in feet include:6
Pain with movement
Pain that flares up with activity
Pain or tenderness when you apply pressure to the joint
Swelling, warmth, or redness of the joints
More pain in the morning, or after resting for a period of time
Early Arthritis Symptoms
Pain is a common symptom of arthritis in the feet. Depending on the type of arthritis the pain may get better or worse with activity.6
Clicking and grinding sounds are a somewhat normal part of movement. There are a lot of moving pieces in your feet. Bones and ligaments in the foot are cushioned with cartilage, but that cartilage wears away as we age or with overuse. Noisy joints are the result of movement with less cushion, and generally aren't considered a problem unless the noise is accompanied by pain or swelling like in the case of arthritis.7
Joint stiffness can come with inflammation in arthritis. When tissues in the feet are swollen, this swelling can impair movement and make the foot feel stiff.6
As arthritis sets into a joint, inflammation occurs and parts of the foot can swell.6
In some cases, cartilage in your joints may wear away so severely that an extremely rough surface is created where the bones meet. As the bones grind against each other, they can become stuck in a painful position. This is called joint locking. While this condition isn't permanent, it can be painful to move the joint out of the locked position.
Changes in Appearance
Swelling and inflammation, as well as joint destruction in some forms of arthritis, can actually change the shape and appearance of the joint.6
Some forms of arthritis, like osteoarthritis, come with aging. As cartilage breaks down, the space between your joints loses cushion and becomes rough. Pain and swelling can occur as rough pieces of bone rub against each other.
Other types of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, happen when the body's immune system malfunctions and begins to attack its own tissue, breaking down joints.
Arthritis is also common in the feet after untreated injuries. Injuries that don't heal correctly can become a target for arthritis in time.6
Other risk factors for arthritis include:8
A Word From Verywell
Cracking or popping noises in joints comes with age, and aren't usually a sign of something bad—unless those sounds come with pain or swelling. If you experience frequent pain or swelling in one or more joints or are having trouble walking, you may want to see your doctor to rule out arthritis. A physical examination and imaging tests can help your doctor diagnose arthritis and other conditions.