Introduction 

Cartilage damage is a relatively common type of injury. The majority of cases involve the knee joint.

Symptoms of cartilage damage include:

  • swelling
  • joint pain
  • stiffness
  • a decreased range of movement in the affected joint

Cartilage

Cartilage is a tough, flexible tissue found throughout the body. Cartilage serves two main functions:

  • a shock absorber
  • 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 repair damaged tissue, so damaged cartilage does not heal as quickly as damaged skin or muscles.

Types of cartilage

There are three types of cartilage. They are:

  • elastic cartilage – this makes up the outside of the ears, some of the nose and the epiglottis (the flap of tissue at the back of the throat that prevents food going down into your airways)
  • fibrocartilage – found between the discs (vertebrae) of the spine and between the bones of the hips and pelvis
  • articular (hyaline) cartilage – a springy and tough type of cartilage found between the ribs, around the windpipe (trachea) and between the joints

All three types of cartilage can be damaged. For example, a blow to your ear can damage the elastic cartilage, making your ear look deformed. This condition is often seen in rugby players and is known as "cauliflower ear".

The fibrocartilage between the discs in your back can also become damaged, resulting in a slipped disc.

This article focuses on articular cartilage damage.

Causes of articular cartilage damage

Articular cartilage damage is one of the most common and potentially serious types of cartilage damage, and usually affects the knee joint. The damage can result in pain, swelling and some loss of mobility.

There are three main ways the articular cartilage can be damaged:

  • a sudden accidental injury – for example, a fall or a sports injury
  • osteoarthritis – this type of long-term cartilage damage to the joints is more likely if you've had your meniscus removed, are overweight, or have a problem with your joint structure
  • osteochondritis dissecans – where a small section of cartilage and a piece of bone attached to it comes away from a joint
  • infection

Treatment

Non-surgical treatments, such as physiotherapy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are usually recommended for minor to moderate cases of cartilage damage.

Surgery may be required in more serious cases. 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 joint and using it to replace damaged cartilage.

In the most serious cases, the entire joint may need to be replaced with an artificial joint, such as a knee replacement or hip replacement.

Read more about the treatment of cartilage damage.

How common is cartilage damage?

It is hard to estimate exactly how common cartilage damage is because many people with mild damage do not seek medical help. However, it is thought to be quite common.

Every year around 10,000 people in the UK have cartilage damage serious enough to require treatment.

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 the age of 50. It is also more common in women than in men.

Arthroscopy

Arthroscopy can be a safe and effective procedure for diagnosing and treating knee problems. Orthopaedic surgeon Mr Lawrence Freedman explains.

Media last reviewed: 21/10/2013

Next review due: 21/10/2015

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Page last reviewed: 11/07/2014

Next review due: 11/07/2016