While most think of cartilage as the connective tissue in joints or the lobes of your ear, it is also found in your nose, spine, and trachea.
Cartilage is made up of proteins and water. In fact, it can be up to 80% water, but can diminish with age, when dehydrated, or when a daily diet lacks nutrients that support cartilage health.
Proteins give cartilage its shape and the properties necessary for its function in the body. Together, proteins are often referred to as a matrix, as they form a mesh or webbing.
Types of Cartilage
There are different types of cartilage, some acting as a shock absorber or barrier between joints and bones and others as the structure for organs that help us speak and hear.
Here are the three types of cartilage:
Hyaline Cartilage is the most abundant of the three types found in the body. Hyaline cartilage on the surface of bones and joints is called articular cartilage. It is still hyaline cartilage but is referenced by its location. Hyaline cartilage is also found in the nose, ears, trachea, ribs, and even the skin and bones.
You can find elastic cartilage on the outside of your ear; the flexible yet hard part that gives the ear its shape. Your larynx is also comprised of elastic cartilage. The auditory tube is also made from elastic cartilage. The matrix for elastic cartilage is made up of type II collagen, giving the tissue its elastic fibers.
This type of cartilage is very strong and helps the body to withstand weight, shear, and compression. For example, the meniscus is made entirely of fibrocartilage. The meniscus is located in the knee and acts as a sort of shock absorber to help maintain mobility without pain. Fibrocartilage is also found in the hips, pelvis, spine, and even the aortic wall.
Injury to cartilage generally falls under one of four categories:
- Traumatic event. Any area of your body is susceptible to trauma. This can occur during work, playing sports, or in any type of accident.
- Wear and Tear. Over time, cartilage in certain areas of your body can wear out or become damaged from overuse. This might come with advanced age. Professional athletes often see wear and tear injuries at a younger age due to their rigorous activity.
- Illness. Some diseases and illnesses can cause damage to joints and cartilage.
- Immobility. Muscles can atrophy, and cartilage is more susceptible to injury if it’s not exercised frequently. This can happen when someone is recovering from a long illness or surgery and is bedridden for long periods.
Treatment for Cartilaginous Injuries
With certain types of cartilage, it can be difficult to distinguish between damage to cartilage or to other aspects of the larger joint. A physician will often use imaging (e.g., an MRI) in order to diagnose the problem.
Those who experience injury to cartilage will often see swelling, lack of mobility, and pain.
If you’re experiencing soreness, a limited range of motion, and swelling that lasts for a prolonged period, it’s recommended that you see a physician to offer a full diagnosis.
Unlike other tissues of the body, like muscles and tendons, cartilage doesn’t have blood vessels coursing through it. The result is that damaged cartilage will not self-heal. Due to the lack of regeneration, it’s important to take a proactive approach to maintain healthy bones and joints throughout your life. This includes a good diet and exercise plan.
Cartilage loss and injuries impact people of every age bracket. In some cases, the injury may be minor enough to treat with over the counter anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy.
For some patients with extensive damage and intense pain, surgical solutions can be an option. Depending on the status of cartilage and patient health, procedures can be minimally invasive or may require partial or total joint replacement.