Cartilage damage is a relatively common type of injury. The majority of cases involve the knee joint.
Symptoms of cartilage damage include:
- joint pain
- a decreased range of movement in the affected joint
Cartilage is a tough, flexible tissue found throughout the body. Cartilage serves two main functions:
- it acts as a shock absorber
- it acts as a mould
Cartilage covers the surface of joints, enabling bones to slide over one another while reducing friction and preventing damage. It helps to support your weight when you move, bend, stretch and run.
The tough, flexible cartilage tissue is ideal for creating specially shaped and curved body parts that would otherwise have no support from the bones. For example, most of the nose and the outside of the ears are made up of cartilage tissue.
Unlike other types of tissue, cartilage does not have its own blood supply. Blood cells help to repair damaged tissue, therefore damaged cartilage does not heal as quickly as damaged skin or muscles.
Types of cartilage
There are several types of cartilage. However we will focus on two types of cartilage, they are:
- hyaline cartilage
These are described in more detail below.
Fibrocartilage is the toughest type of cartilage and can withstand a great deal of weight. It is found between the discs (vertebrae) of the spine and between the bones of the hips and pelvis.
Hyaline cartilage, also known as articular cartilage, is both springy and tough. It is found between the ribs, around the windpipe (trachea) and between the joints.
Types of cartilage damage
All two types of cartilage can be damaged.
The fibrocartilage between the discs in your back can also become damaged, resulting in a slipped disc.
One of the most common and potentially serious types of cartilage damage is damage to the articular cartilage between a joint (usually the knee joint). The damage can result in pain, swelling and some loss of mobility.
There are three main ways that the articular cartilage can be damaged:
- as a result of a sudden accidental injury to the cartilage – for example, falling bay and landing on your knees
- where a small section of cartilage and a piece of bone attached to it comes away from a joint – this is known as osteochondritis dissecans
- long-term damage that occurs due to a process of ‘wear and tear’ – this type of long-term cartilage damage to the joints is known as osteoarthritis.
(The rest of this article focuses on articular cartilage damage.)
Non-surgical treatments, such as injection, physiotherapy and the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) type of painkillers, are usually recommended for minor to moderate cases of cartilage damage.
In more serious cases surgery may be required. There are a number of surgical techniques available, such as encouraging the growth of new cartilage, or taking a piece of healthy cartilage from elsewhere in the body and using it to replace damaged cartilage.
How common is cartilage damage?
It is hard to estimate exactly how common cartilage damage is because many people with mild cartilage damage do not seek medical help. However, cartilage damage is thought to be quite common.
Cases of accidental cartilage damage are most common in people under 35 years old. This is because this age group is more likely to take part in sporting activities where there is a higher risk of injury.
Cartilage damage associated with osteoarthritis is more common in adults over 50 years old. It is also more common in women than in men.