That popping sound when you flex your ankle or climb stairs isn’t necessarily just advancing age. It could be harmless, but if there’s also pain, see an orthopedist.
Related Anatomy and Terms
The ankle is a hinge joint made up of the tibia (shin bone), fibula, and talus. The joint is responsible for raising the foot up (dorsiflexion), pointing the foot down (plantar flexion), and a small degree of lateral, or side-to-side, movement.
Ligaments, tendons, and muscles stabilize the ankle joint. Synovial fluid, a natural lubricant, coats cartilage on the ends of the bones so the joint can move properly. Damage to the ankle bones and/or their supporting structures can affect the integrity of the joint and cause numerous problems, one of which being crepitus.
Crepitus is a medical term used to describe a variety of unusual sounds (i.e. popping, grinding, cracking, crunching, grating) that occur with joint movement. The popping sound in your ankle may be considered crepitus. If pain is associated with the popping sound you’re hearing, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with an orthopedic specialist.
Causes and Associated Symptoms
The popping sound in your ankle may be caused by any of the following:
- An ankle sprain – A common injury sustained by athletes and active individuals. Excessive twisting and/or turning of the ankle may injure the ligaments and lead to instability. An unstable ankle may make a popping sound.
- Peroneal tendon instability – The peroneal tendons are located on the lateral (outside) portion of the ankle. When they are unstable, usually due to a high ankle sprain, they slide out of their anatomical position and produce a loud pop or snap.
- Osteochondritis Dessicans (OCD) – A condition in which a piece of cartilage and/or bone breaks from the talus and remains loose in the ankle joint, potentially producing a popping sound.
Pain is typically associated with these conditions. Other presenting symptoms generally include swelling, bruising, and weakness.
Treatment and Preventative Measures
Popping due to an ankle sprain is initially treated using Rest Ice Compression and Elevation (RICE). Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed to help with pain and inflammation. After pain is under control, a physical therapy program is prescribed to strengthen the ankle joint and injured ligaments.
Popping due to peroneal tendon instability is typically treated using immobilization. A boot, splint, or cast is worn for 4-12-weeks. If symptoms are not decreased or eliminated, surgery may be needed to repair the tendons.
Popping due to OCD generally requires surgical intervention. During an ankle arthroscopy procedure, an orthopedic surgeon locates and removes the loose cartilage and/or bone.
When treatment is effective and the popping sound stops, a compression sleeve or brace may be worn for support and protection.
If you’re concerned about a popping sound in your ankle, we encourage you to make an appointment with an orthopedic specialist. He or she will take a detailed medical history, perform a physical exam, and order and analyze medical imaging studies to determine the cause of your problem and come up with treatment plan to fix it. Your condition is one that need not linger on.