Cartilage damage: Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment

Cartilage is a connective tissue found in many parts of the body. Although it is a tough and flexible material, it is relatively easy to damage.

This fine, rubbery tissue acts as a cushion between the bones of joints. People with cartilage damage commonly experience joint pain, stiffness, and inflammation (swelling).

In this article, we will describe the function of cartilage, how it can become damaged, and how that damage can be treated.

Fast facts on cartilage damage

Here are some key points about cartilage damage. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Cartilage has several functions, including holding bones together and supporting other tissues

There are three types of cartilage

Diagnosis of cartilage damage will normally require and MRI or arthroscopy

Cartilage damage is often treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

What is cartilage?

Cartilage is tissue that cushions the bones.
Cartilage is tissue that cushions the bones.

Cartilage has several functions in the human body:

Reduces friction and acts as a cushion between joints and helps support our weight when we run, bend, and stretch.

Holds bones together, for instance, the bones of the ribcage.

Some body parts are made almost entirely of cartilage, for example, the external parts of our ears.

In children, the ends of the long bones are made of cartilage, which eventually turns into bone.

Unlike other types of tissue, cartilage does not have a blood supply. Because of this, damaged cartilage takes much longer to heal, compared with other tissues that are supplied by blood.

There are three types of cartilage:

Elastic cartilage (yellow cartilage) – the most springy and supple type of cartilage. Elastic cartilage makes up the outside of the ears and some of the nose.

Fibrocartilage – the toughest type of cartilage, able to withstand heavy weights. It is found between the discs and vertebrae of the spine and between the bones of the hip and pelvis.

Hyaline cartilage – springy, tough, and elastic. It is found between the ribs, around the windpipe, and between the joints (articular cartilage).

Elastic cartilage, fibrocartilage, and hyaline cartilage can all be damaged. For example, a slipped disk is a type of fibrocartilage damage, while a hard impact on the ear can cause elastic cartilage damage.

When cartilage in a joint is damaged, it can cause severe pain, inflammation, and some degree of disability – this is known as articular cartilage. According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), one-third of American adults aged over 45 suffers from some type of knee pain.

Symptoms

Patients with damage to the cartilage in a joint (articular cartilage damage) will experience:

Inflammation – the area swells, becomes warmer than other parts of the body, and is tender, sore, and painful.

Stiffness.

Range limitation – as the damage progresses, the affected limb will not move so freely and easily.

Articular cartilage damage most commonly occurs in the knee, but the elbow, wrist, ankle, shoulder, and hip joint can also be affected.

In severe cases, a piece of cartilage can break off, and the joint can become locked. This can lead to hemarthrosis (bleeding in the joint); the area may become blotchy and have a bruised appearance.

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Causes

Direct blow – if a joint receives a heavy impact, perhaps during a bad fall or an automobile accident, the cartilage may be damaged. Sportspeople have a higher risk of suffering from articular damage, especially those involved in high impact sports like American football, rugby, and wrestling.

Wear and tear – a joint that experiences a long period of stress can become damaged. Obese individuals are more likely to damage their knee over a 20-year period than a person of normal weight, simply because the body is under a much higher degree of physical stress. Inflammation, breakdown, and eventual loss of cartilage in the joints is known as osteoarthritis.

Lack of movement – the joints need to move regularly to remain healthy. Long periods of inactivity or immobility increase the risk of damage to the cartilage.

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