Cartilage: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 03, 2022

Cartilage is a tissue in your body. It is the main structural component of your ear, nose, and windpipe. In fact, pretty much any place in the body where two bones meet is protected by cartilage, particularly around your major joints. It serves numerous functions but can be damaged as well, leading to health issues. 

What Is Cartilage?

Cartilage is a connective tissue that is strong enough and flexible enough to protect your joints and bones as a shock absorber. It is tough, serving as the main connective tissue type in your body. 

60 to 80 % of cartilage is made up of water, though that percentage decreases as you age. The rest is a gel-like matrix that gives the cartilage its form. This matrix is made up of specialized proteins, including collagens, non-collagenous proteins, and proteoglycans.  

Cartilage separates the nostrils in the septum of your nose. It can be quite flexible and is found in joints, in your trachea, and in your ear. 

Additionally, special cartilage padding contains fibrous cartilage called menisci, which helps the body to disperse weight and reduce friction. The knee is an example of a body part where this type of cartilage can be located. 

Where Is Cartilage Found?

Cartilage is positioned at the ends of bones to decrease friction as they move, preventing them from rubbing against each other when you are moving your joints. Cartilage is also the most prominent tissue in many parts of your body, providing them with structure and shape.  

The total cell volume of cartilage is small, though. It makes up about 1 to 2% of the total volume of tissue in adults. It contains no nerves, no blood vessels, and no lymphatic system. Nutrients make their way through the matrix by diffusion.

What Does Cartilage Do?

Bones and joints are protected by cartilage. It provides cushions in between your joints and the bones. There are three primary functions of cartilage:

  • Cartilage supports the structures in your body: It helps the joints to maintain their relative positions while they are in motion. It connects other tissue types to your bones and to each other. Cartilage is connected to ligaments, muscles, and tendons all over your body. 
  • Cartilage absorbs shock: It cushions the joints and bones while they are being used. It is able to absorb friction and force, reducing stress and the impact it can have on your bones. Its function can be compared to punching a wall barehanded vs punching it with a boxing glove. The cartilage is the boxing glove.   

Types of Cartilage

The types of cartilage in your body can be divided into three categories:

  • Hyaline
  • Elastic
  • Fibrous

Hyaline cartilage is most important. It can be found along the lines of your joints and at the bone caps. When the hyaline cartilage is at the end of your bones, it is commonly referred to as articular cartilage. 

Fibrocartilage is tough, made of thick fibers. It is the least flexible of the three because it is the strongest. It absorbs impacts and holds parts of your body together. 

The most flexible cartilage is elastic. It is abundant in the parts of the body that are able to bend and move. It can spring back into its original shape following an impact. The ear, for example, can be manipulated and will return to its usual shape without pain. It is made of elastic cartilage. 

Cartilage Disorders

Injury to your cartilage can occur abruptly. More sudden cartilage injuries might include sports injuries or some other trauma types.

Damage to cartilage can also occur gradually over the course of your life. Cartilage doesn’t have nerves, so if there is any pain involving the cartilage, it is due to irritation of surrounding areas. This irritation can build up over time, becoming arthritis

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. It is the result of the wear and tear of your joints. As you age, your joint cartilage breaks down, so 80% of adults over 55 have some degree of arthritis. Symptoms include inflammation and pain near the joints due to a lack of lubrication and cushioning following degenerative loss of cartilage. 

Other types of illness like slipped, bulging, ruptured, or herniated disks occur when a disk of cartilage positioned between the bones that make up your spine is punctured or torn. This can be painful and can cause difficulties that restrict ambulation (walking) and other movements. 

Without treatment, compromised cartilage can lead to these conditions and more. Cartilage doesn’t contain blood vessels, so it does not heal well. To compensate for this, new technologies and surgical techniques are constantly being developed to encourage the growth of cartilage. The aim is to improve function, decrease pain, and prevent further damage. 

Show Sources

Cleveland Clinic: "Cartilage."
International Cartilage Regeneration and Joint Preservation Society: "What is Cartilage?"
StatPearls Publishing: "Cartilage."
Summit Orthopedics: "Understand Your Joints: What Is Cartilage?."

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