A man bends over and rests his hand on his knee. He appears in pain.
Aching joints emit high-frequency sounds during movement, which offer clues about the health of the joint. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Ever hear your joints clicking, creaking or crunching?

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Our Take

Travis Menge, MD, is shown.

As a specialist in orthopedic surgery, Travis Menge, MD, knows well the many conditions that cause joint pain, crackles and pops.

“It is very common for joints, such as the knee, hip, and shoulder, to make noises with movement due to wear of the cartilage,” said Dr. Menge, who works on the Spectrum Health Medical Group Orthopedics & Sports Medicine team. “It is unknown, however, whether these noises are an early warning sign of further abnormalities.”

He said this project highlights the growing use of technology to identify and diagnose osteoarthritis in its early stages. It’s a welcome evolution of medical care, in his opinion.

“Currently, we do not have the technology to fully replace cartilage in a joint once it is completely lost, so being able to identify these early changes could allow earlier treatment in efforts to slow or delay joint degeneration,” Dr. Menge said.

Now, researchers say a new technique that listens closely to knees may help doctors diagnose and monitor osteoarthritis.

In the new study, researchers attached small microphones to participants’ knees, which allowed them to listen for high-frequency sounds as the person repeatedly stood up and sat down again.

Computer analysis of the sounds then provided information about the health of the knee, the study authors explained.

This study is the first to assess this technique in a large number of people with knee osteoarthritis. It was found to distinguish between healthy knees and those afflicted by this “wear-and-tear” form of arthritis.

The findings move the technique a step closer to use by doctors and in research, according to the report published recently in the journal PLOS ONE.

“This work is very exciting because it involves scientists and clinicians working together as a team to develop an entirely new approach,” said project leader John Goodacre. He’s an emeritus professor at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom.

“Potentially, this could transform ways in which knee osteoarthritis is managed. It will enable better diagnosis and will enable treatments to be tailored more precisely according to individual knee condition. It will also enable faster, bigger and better clinical trials of new treatments,” Goodacre said in a university news release.

The next step for researchers is to develop a non-invasive portable device that health care providers could use to assess whether patients’ knees are changing or are responding to treatment for osteoarthritis.

This technique could provide a quicker, cheaper, more convenient and more accurate assessment than current methods, the study authors said.