Blog Car Care Advice 7 Major Bad Ball Joint Symptoms (+Causes and How To Test It)
Car Care Advice

7 Major Bad Ball Joint Symptoms (+Causes and How To Test It)

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The ball joint in your car’s suspension system uses a ball stud and a socket encased in a rubber seal. 

It connects the wheel hub to the control arm (upper and lower control arm) and the steering knuckle. This joint allows the wheel hub to move up, down, left, and right — similar to how the human hip joint works. 

So, how can you know you’ve got a bad ball joint?

We’ll explain how you can identify a bad ball joint and how to inspect it.

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Let’s get rolling!

7 Bad Ball Joint Symptoms to Look Out For

The ball joint is an important suspension component that stabilizes your car on a rough road with bumps and dips. But, as you drive, dirt and grit can get into the joint socket and wear out the joint over time. 

Here are several symptoms that can indicate its failure:

1. Rattling or Clunking Noise

The first symptom you might catch when driving with bad ball joints is a rattling or clunking noise from the front suspension — especially when driving over a speed bump or turning.

These unusual noises result from the thinned ball joint or when the grease fitting dries up, causing the ball stud to knock into the socket walls. Sometimes, if there’s dirt or grime lodged inside the socket, you might hear a squeaking noise instead.

2. Cabin Vibration

Bad ball joints can also cause excessive vibration in the cabin when driving. This vibration is called a front-end shimmy, where only the frontal part of your car shakes (cabin, steering wheel, front seats, and brake pedal).

A worn ball joint, especially those with a bad ball where the metal has thinned out, creates excessive vibration as the vehicle moves. This can happen even when driving down a smooth, straight road.

3. Unresponsive Steering System

When the ball joints are in good condition, your steering wheel should feel tight, and the wheels will immediately respond to every turn. However, steering your vehicle becomes a hassle when you have a bad ball joint. 

The steering wheel can feel stiff (due to grime build-up inside the joint) or sloppy (because of a loose ball joint). When this happens, you’ll find that controlling the steering wheel when turning becomes difficult. 

4. Steering Wander

Steering wander is another symptom of a damaged ball joint. You’ll notice the car drifting away as you drive on a straight road or over bumps. 

That’s because a damaged ball joint causes the suspension and steering system to become imbalanced, changing the wheel alignment. Hence, you’ll have difficulty driving your car on a fixed path.

5. Uneven Tire Wear

Another sign of bad ball joints is uneven tire wear. The extra movement or play caused by a loose ball joint can put additional pressure on the tires,  causing uneven wear.

You’ll notice that tire wear occurs faster in the front tires. Your tires may also show signs of tire cupping — a type of tire wear where the inner and outer threads thin out faster than the middle across the width of your tire.

6. Thinned-Out Wear Indicators

Like tire wear, thinning wear indicators are another surefire symptom of ball joint wear. The wear indicator is a small stud found on older ball joint models — especially those with a grease fitting or pin.

This pin sticks out from the joint and will sink into the ball joint at the same rate as the joint deteriorates. To inspect the wear indicator, you’ll need to get under your car and observe the ball joint. So, if you see the pin fully sunken inside the ball joint, it’s high time to change it.

7. Misaligned or Damaged Suspension Parts

While some symptoms can only be felt when driving, this last symptom requires you to inspect the underbelly of your car. 

Scrape marks or rust on the suspension components (tie rod, control arm bushing, CV joints, etc.) mean it has come into contact with the rough road surface as you drive (especially over a speed bump). Although such marks can occur due to accidents, they could also indicate wear in the ball joint. 

Most of these symptoms can overlap with other car suspension issues. So, to figure out whether the ball joint is causing it, you’ll need a mechanic to inspect it.

So, what exactly can cause a failing ball joint? 
Keep reading!

What Causes Ball Joint Failure?

The ball joints in your car are susceptible to wear and tear, just like any other suspension component found in your vehicle. 

Here’s a list of things that may affect the lifespan of your suspension’s ball joints:

Although you can’t avoid some of these factors, you can always get the ball joints checked every so often by a mechanic, especially if you feel that something is wrong with them.

Let’s check out how a mechanic does it next. 

How to Inspect the Ball Joint

Here’s how a mechanic would inspect your vehicle for a worn ball joint:

  1. Jack up the car and secure it with stands. This makes it easier for them to reach under your vehicle to inspect the suspension system later.
  1. Next, visually assess the tires and look for signs of uneven wear. They’ll look out for irregular thread wear in the front tires. As mentioned before, a failing ball joint can cause uneven pressure and friction on the tires. 
  1. Next, they’ll rock the tire back and forth to test the ball joints’ play. A new ball joint wouldn’t cause excessive play or unusual noises as the tire moves. 

    Two different outcomes indicate ball joint wear: 
    • Squeaking noise and play from the bottom: There’s a problem with the lower ball joint.
    • Squeaking noise and play from the top: The upper ball joint has a problem.
  1. Once that’s done, the mechanic will remove the tires to access the suspension system. They’ll visually inspect the ball joints for: 
    • Signs of corrosion
    • Grease leaks
    • Boot damage, etc.

Once all the tests and inspections are done, the mechanic can finally replace the faulty ball joint

Note: A ball joint replacement typically involves replacing ball joints on both the left and right sides. Because when one side is showing signs of wear, the other side is usually not far behind.

Still have concerns about your car’s ball joints?
Coming up are some FAQs to help you understand better.

3 FAQs about Ball Joints

Here are the answers to three commonly asked questions about ball joints: 

1. What Are the Different Types of Ball Joints?

There are two types of ball joints that connect the tire to the suspension system — the upper and lower ball joints.

The upper ball joint maintains the wheel alignment, aids in turning, and allows the steering knuckle to turn. It’s known as the non-load-bearing joint (or followers) and is smaller than the lower joint. 

The lower ball joint carries most of the car’s frontal weight, hence called the load-bearing joint. It’s also the reason why it wears out faster.

2. Can You Drive With Worn Ball Joints?

No, you should never drive with a broken ball joint.

Continuing to drive can lead to even worse damages — the ball stud or the whole joint might come off from the housing, resulting in immediate loss of steering power. 

3. How Long Does a Ball Joint Last?

Generally, the ball joint can last up to 70,000 to 150,000 miles

However, this lifespan can change depending on your driving habits. Constantly driving through rough terrain will make your ball joints wear out faster than driving in the city.

Note: Maintaining your shock absorbers is one way to ensure the ball joint lasts longer. Worn shock absorbers reduce the suspension system’s efficiency and can lead to premature wear of the other components, like the tie rod, CV joints, control arm bushing, and ball joint.

Final Thoughts

The ball joints may seem like a small suspension component, but understanding the signs of a broken ball joint is important. Without it, your car could lose control, and you’d lose a wheel or two. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of a faulty ball joint, it’s best to get a professional to fix it — like AutoNation Mobile Service.

AutoNation Mobile Service is a mobile auto repair service you can book online. Our professional services also come with a 12-month|12,000-mile warranty.

Contact us today to get a ball joint replacement, and we’ll send our trained technician to your driveway!