Cartilage is a fine, rubbery connective tissue found cushioning bones throughout the body. Even though it’s a tough and flexible material it is subject to injuries and tears. In this article, we’ll examine what cartilage is for, how damages occur, plus symptoms of and treatments for cartilage injuries.
What is the Purpose or Function of Cartilage?
There are four basic functions cartilage serves in the body:
- It reduces friction by acting as a cushion between joints, and helps support our weight when we run, bend or stretch.
- Cartilage holds bones together.
- Some body parts are almost entirely made up of cartilage, such as the outer parts of our ears.
- The ends of the long bones in children are primarily cartilage, which eventually becomes bone.
Because cartilage has no blood supply, when it’s injured, it takes a long time to heal.
There are three types of cartilage in our bodies, and all of them can be injured:
- Elastic (yellow) Cartilage – Supple elastic cartilage that makes up the outside of the ears and parts of the nose.
- Fibro-cartilage – This is the toughest type of cartilage in the body. It withstands heavy weights, and lies between the discs and vertebrae of the spine and in between the bones of the pelvis and hips.
- Hyaline Cartilage – This tough, stretchable cartilage lies between the ribs, around the windpipe, and between joints (a.k.a. articular cartilage).
When the cartilage in a joint (articular cartilage) is damaged, it causes severe pain, inflammation, weakness and disability. Our bodies have a limited ability to regenerate articular cartilage cells, and because of this, injuries to articular cartilage can result in serious and progressive damage to the surface of the joint. If left untreated, these areas of cartilage damage may spread to the joint surface, resulting in osteoarthritis of the joint.
Causes of Cartilage Injuries
Cartilage may become damaged or injured in several ways, including:
- A direct blow – A fall, an accident, a collision in a game like football, or any direct blow to a joint may damage cartilage. That’s why athletes who play contact sports like football are so vulnerable to cartilage injuries.
- Wear and tear – A joint that is under stress over a period of time can result in a cartilage injury. One common example is excess body weight, which puts stress on knee joints over time.
- Lack of movement – Our joints need to move regularly in order to stay healthy. Long periods of inactivity or immobility can result in an increased risk of damage to cartilage.
Diagnosing cartilage damage is tricky because pain in a joint is often caused by other things like a sprain, a fracture, or damaged ligament. Fortunately, today’s non-invasive diagnostic methods do a good job in confirming a doctor’s diagnosis after a physical evaluation.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – Orthopedic surgeons rely heavily on MRIs to determine the nature of an injury and decide on the best treatment. Today’s sophisticated MRI technologies provide images that clearly distinguish cartilage from bone.
- Arthroscopy – Doctors use a tube-like instrument known as an arthroscope to both examine and repair cartilage.
Treatment of cartilage damage depends on a several factors including age, activity level, joint condition, size and location of an injury, and the patient’s ability to participate in rehabilitation:
- Non-Surgical Treatment – Depending on the injury, many patients respond well to conservative treatment that includes the use of nsaids to reduce inflammation, or steroid injections. When combined with physical therapy, this is sometimes all a patient needs.
- Surgery – Patients with more extensive injuries, or those who don’t respond to conservative treatment will usually require a surgical solution. There are several surgical options, and an orthopaedic surgeon will decide which one is right based on patient age, activity level, the size of a lesion, and how long ago an injury occurred.