Hearing cracking and popping sounds coming from your ankles when you walk or rotate them is not uncommon. While this may be unsettling, it’s usually the result of tendons or gas—nitrogen bubbles—in the joint that’s moving.
Sometimes the sound may be muffled and at other times it may be loud enough for not only you to hear, but other people to hear too.
The medical term for this cracking and popping sound is crepitus. You can experience crepitus at any age, however, it’s more common when you are older.
Crepitus can occur in joints or along bones. When it happens in an area that’s not a joint, it’s called bone crepitus and this is usually a result of loose bone fragments from a fracture rubbing against each other.
When it occurs in a joint, it’s known as joint crepitus. This could be caused by gas bubbles in the joint popping, but it can also be caused by tendons moving across the bone, which you can feel if their hand is placed over the joint when the popping happens.
Joint crepitus is the more common of the two types and it’s usually not serious.
If you’ve had an injury or a possible fracture and develop cracking or popping after that, then there may be an underlying cause.
In most cases, ankle cracking or popping is not a cause for concern and it’s common to hear these sounds coming from the joint.
As we get older, the cartilage in the joint becomes thin and wears away, causing the surfaces of the bone to become a little rougher. As you walk or run, these surfaces make noise as they rub against each other.
But the popping sound can also be caused when you move and the joint capsule—which is filled with synovium—stretches, which releases bubbles. You may notice that when your muscles are tight, there’s an increase in the cracking of popping sounds.
Another reason why you may be hearing the cracking and popping noise is due to the peroneal tendons rubbing over the ankle bone.
One of the most common causes of ankle noise is your peroneal tendons rubbing over your ankle bone. Our ankles have two fibular muscles—also known as peroneal muscles—that provide support, stability, and balance to the foot, as well as play a role in the movements of the ankle.
When the tendons that support these muscles move out of the groove—behind the bony bump on the outside—of the ankle, this can create a cracking, popping, or snapping sound.
Symptom of an Underlying Health Condition
If you experience pain with the cracking and popping sound, then it could mean that there’s an underlying condition causing the crepitus.
The following conditions can cause the popping sound along with other symptoms.
This is a joint condition where a small piece of the bone underneath the cartilage separates from the joint. The small piece of bone then dies due to a lack of blood flow, causing the cartilage that covers it to break loose.
Not only can this hinder the movement of the joint—causing pain—but it can cause the popping and cracking sound in the ankle.
Peroneal Tendon Injury
The peroneal tendons run behind the bone on the outside of the ankle, connecting the ankle and the foot to the lower leg. They play an important role in stabilizing the ankle when you change direction or when you walk—or run—and push off with your toes.
If the peroneal tendons sustain an injury, they may cause the popping sound in the ankle when you rotate it or move them.
Osteoarthritis of the ankle is a painful condition where the cartilage wears away over time. This causes the bones to rub against each other as you move, which causes pain, swelling, stiffness, or loss of motion of the joint.
Due to the cartilage that has worn away, one may hear a cracking, crunching, or popping sound when they flex or point the toes.
How Do You Get Rid of Cracks in Your Ankles?
Strengthening your ankles can help prevent the popping sound, as well as ankle injuries.
Some exercises will target the fibular muscles—also known as peroneal muscles—which can increase the stability of your ankles, help to stretch them and increase mobility by reducing joint stiffness.
By doing these exercises in the morning after you’ve woken up, you’ll be able to reduce the stiffness and loosen up the joint so you can go on with your daily activities.
Here are some exercises that you can do to help strengthen your ankles. Just make sure you are wearing shoes with good ankle support while you are exercising. And an ankle brace is likely overdoing it.
Calf raises will strengthen the calf muscles, which can reduce the amount of pressure that’s placed on the fibular muscles and peroneal tendons in the ankle.
To start this exercise, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart on a raised platform like the edge of a step. Hold onto a rail or a sturdy chair to help you maintain your balance. Then place your forefoot—the front half of your foot—on the platform, with your heels hanging off the edge, behind the body.
The rise up onto your toes, using your calves to push—drive—your body upwards so your ankles are fully extended.
Then gently lower your heels back down, just below the ledge. Repeat this motion for 10 reps.
As you gain strength in your calves, you can make the exercise more challenging by following the steps above, but only using one leg at a time.
This exercise can help to reduce stiffness and increase mobility in your ankles.
You can use a foam roller, yoga block, or a stool with this exercise. Start by sitting and extending your right leg out in front of you, with your ankle hanging off the edge of the yoga block or stool.
Then rotate your foot clockwise so that you’re drawing circles in the air with your toes.
Do this 10 times and then go anti-clockwise 10 times before switching to your left leg, where you’ll repeat the motion.
This stretch can help to relieve tight ankles.
Start by sitting with your legs extended out in front of you, keeping your knees straight. Then wrap the towel around your foot just under the toes, holding an end of the towel in each hand.
Gently pull the towel backward so that your foot stretches towards your body. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat 10 times.
This exercise helps to develop both strength and stability so that you can safely step forwards, backward, and to the side.
To start this exercise, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can stand next to a rail or a sturdy chair so that you can catch yourself if you happen to lose your balance while doing the exercise.
Then lift your right foot off the floor until your shin is parallel to the floor and balance on the left foot for as long as you can or up to 30 seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat the motion on your alternate leg.
Do 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
Draw the Alphabet
This exercise stretches your foot and ankle and builds foot and ankle strength, which also helps increase your balance.
For this exercise, sit in a chair and extend your right leg in front of you—your foot must be elevated and not resting on the ground. Then imagine that your big toe is a pencil and draw the letters of the alphabet in the air, moving your foot from the ankle joint.
Once you’ve done all 26 letters, switch to your left foot and write the alphabet again.
Can Some Conditions Make It Worse?
There are some medical conditions that can cause the cracking or popping sound to happen more frequently. The following are some of the conditions that can make crepitus worse.
Osteoarthritis causes the cartilage to become thinner and worn, which leaves the bones of the joints unprotected. As you move, the bones of the joints rub against each other and studies have shown that this has links to the popping and crunching sound.
With that being said, there will be people who have osteoarthritis who may not experience any crepitus.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease where the body’s immune system attacks the soft tissue in the body, including the joint linings. This causes the bones of the joints to rub against each other, which leads to high-pitched popping sounds.
Inflammation Around Tendons
If you’ve sustained an injury to the ankle where the tendons and ligaments become inflamed, you may notice the cracking or popping sound in your ankle afterward.
As you move, the tendons and ligaments slip over the surface of the bones and this creates the sound that you hear.
When to See a Doctor
Seek medical advice or see their doctor if the cracking and popping sound come with other symptoms such as pain, swelling around the ankle, stiffness of the joint, or if you have difficulty walking.
Your doctor may send you for an imaging test, such as an MRI or CT scan. Depending on the severity of your pain, your doctor may also recommend a bone scan, blood tests, joint aspiration, or an inflammation antibody test so that they can make a proper diagnosis.
Once they’ve received the scans or test results back, they can put a treatment plan in place for you.
Depending on the severity of the condition, your doctor may recommend physical therapy, custom orthotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, steroid injections, or keyhole surgery—arthroscopy.