No matter how old you are, you’ve likely heard or felt a pop, click, or creak coming from your ankles or other joints.

In most cases this isn’t a cause for concern, unless the popping is accompanied by pain or swelling.

The medical term for joint popping is crepitus. Noisy joints are often thought of as a sign of aging, but even young people can experience joint popping, especially when exercising or after a period of inactivity.

In this article, we’ll look at the most common causes of ankle popping and when you should see a doctor.

Ankle popping is very common. It’s not a cause for concern in most cases. But if your ankle popping is accompanied by pain or swelling, it may have a more serious cause.

If your popping ankle isn’t causing any pain, it’s likely caused by either:

  • gas being released from your joint capsule
  • your peroneal tendons rubbing over the joint’s bony structures

Let’s take a closer look at the most common causes of ankle popping and why this happens.

Gas release

When you move your ankle, you stretch the joint capsule that’s filled with fluid to keep it lubricated. When bubbles of nitrogen or other gases in this fluid are released, it may cause a loud popping sound.

Tight muscles can contribute to this gas release, which is why you may notice joint popping more often after periods of inactivity, or when you first get up in the morning.

Joint popping caused by gas release is normal. It’s not a sign of joint damage or an underlying condition.

Tendon rubbing

One of the most common causes of ankle noise is caused by your peroneal tendons rubbing over your ankle bone.

You have three peroneal muscles on the outside part of your lower leg. These muscles stabilize your ankle joint. Two of these muscles run through a groove behind the bony bump on the outside of your ankle.

If the tendons from these muscles slip out of this groove, you may get a snapping or popping sound and feeling. It’s not a cause for concern if it doesn’t cause pain.

If you’ve recently had an ankle injury, such as a sprained ankle, you may notice more frequent ankle popping.

Tendon subluxation

The tendons of your peroneal muscles are held in place by a band of tissue called the peroneal retinaculum.

If this band becomes elongated, separated, or torn, it can cause your peroneal tendons to slip out of place and lead to a snapping noise when you move your ankle. This is known as subluxation.

Subluxation is relatively uncommon. It most often occurs in athletes when a sudden force twists their ankle inward. This type of injury may require surgical repair.

Tendon dislocation

A dislocation occurs when the tendons of your peroneal muscles get pushed out of their usual location. When this happen, it can cause a popping or snapping sound in your ankle, along with:

  • inflammation
  • swelling
  • pain

A peroneal tendon dislocation may occur during an ankle sprain. You’ll need medical attention to ensure that the tendons return to their correct position.

Osteochondral lesion

Osteochondral lesions are injuries to the cartilage on the ends of your bones. These lesions can cause clicking and locking in the ankle, and are often accompanied by swelling and limited range of motion.

Osteochondral lesions are present in 50 to 70 percent of ankle sprains and fractures. Doctors can diagnose them using MRI, a type of imaging test. These lesions may require surgery.

These lesions can also form as a result of osteoarthritis. As you age, the cartilage at the end of your bones wears down and the rough edges can cause pain and noise.

Strengthening your ankles may help prevent ankle popping and ankle injuries.

Some types of exercises can help you target your peroneal muscles on the outside of your ankle, which help stabilize your ankle joint.

Here are some exercise ideas for targeting these muscles to improve the stability of your ankles.

Ankle circles

Ankles circles can help you warm up your ankle joints and increase mobility in your ankles. You can perform ankle circles from a seated or lying position.

How to do this exercise:

  1. Support one of your legs on a stable surface with your heel elevated.
  2. Turn your foot in clockwise circles from the ankle. Do this 10 times.
  3. Repeat 10 times in the opposite direction.
  4. Swap legs and repeat the exercise with your other ankle.

Calf raises

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart at the edge of a step or ledge. Hold a railing or sturdy chair for balance.

How to do this exercise:

  1. Raise up onto your toes so your ankles are fully extended.
  2. Lower your heels until they’re below the level of the ledge.
  3. Repeat for 10 reps.

You can also perform this exercise on a single leg to make it harder.

Single-legged balance

Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can stand next to a sturdy chair or wall to catch yourself if you lose your balance.

How to do this exercise:

  1. Lift one foot off the floor.
  2. Balance on one foot for as long as you can, up to 30 seconds.
  3. Repeat on the other side.

Draw the alphabet

Start by lying on your back with one foot elevated, or stand with one foot raised. If you’re standing, you can hold a sturdy chair for support.

How to do this exercise:

  1. Write the alphabet from A to Z with your elevated foot, moving your foot from the ankle joint.
  2. Switch to your other foot and write the alphabet again.

If your ankle popping is causing pain or it started after an injury, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor.

Your doctor may order imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan, to help diagnose any damage to your bones or cartilage.

Depending on the cause of your pain, your doctor may recommend several treatment options, such as:

Ankle popping isn’t usually a serious condition. If it’s not causing pain or discomfort, it likely doesn’t require treatment.

But if your ankle popping is accompanied by pain or swelling, it’s important to see your doctor to determine the cause and get treatment.

Strengthening your ankles with specific ankle exercises may help prevent injuries, like ankle sprains. These exercises may also help strengthen the muscles and tendons that help stabilize your ankle.