What Is the Purpose of Cartilage?

Reviewed on 2/10/2021
Cartilage is avascular, which means there are no blood vessels supplying it with nutrients.
Cartilage is avascular, which means there are no blood vessels supplying it with nutrients.

Cartilage is a firm yet flexible fibrous tissue found at various sites in the body. The most important functions of cartilage include:

  • Cartilage gives shape, support, and structure to other body tissues.
  • It also helps to cushion joints.
  • Cartilage also smoothens the bone surfaces at the joints.
  • It is essential for the development and growth of long bones.

There are three different types of cartilage in the body:

Hyaline cartilage:

  • It contains mostly collagen fibers.
  • It lines the bones in all joints, helping the body to move freely.
  • This type of cartilage is the most common throughout the human body.

Elastic cartilage:

  • It contains elastin fibers, making it more flexible than other types of cartilage.
  • Elastic cartilage balances structure with flexibility, making it the perfect substance to help keep tubular structures open.
  • This type of elastic cartilage is seen in the ears and larynx (voice box).

Fibrocartilage:

  • It contains even more collagen fibers than hyaline cartilage.
  • It is the most rigid type of cartilage and can be found in intervertebral discs (the cushioning structures present between the bones of the spine or vertebrae) in the spine.
  • It is also the strongest type of cartilage.
  • This quality makes it a good connector in high-stress areas of the body, such as between bones, ligaments, and tendons.

Does cartilage heal fast after an injury?

Cartilage is avascular, which means there are no blood vessels supplying it with nutrients. Instead, cartilage receives nutrients when they diffuse through surrounding connective tissue. As cartilage lacks blood vessels, it tends to heal more slowly when injured.

  • Cartilage is the main type of connective tissue seen throughout the body. It serves a variety of structural and functional purposes and exists in different types of joints, bones, spine, lungs, ears, and nose.
  • It consists of cells called chondrocytes that is mixed with collagen and sometimes elastin fibers meshed into a matrix.
  • It is softer and more flexible than bones.
  • Cartilage can be damaged in several ways. An accident can cause direct harm to cartilage in a certain joint. Over time, the wear and tear of everyday life can also damage cartilage.
  • Symptoms can include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, or grinding around the joints and joint locking or giving way.
  • Damage can even be so severe that it causes partial or complete disability.
  • Doctors may assess potential cartilage damage with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or arthroscopic surgery.
  • If the cartilage is damaged, it can be treated in multiple ways. Minor damage may be treated with special exercises and over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs. More severe cartilage damage may require surgery.

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What is cartilage made of?

Cartilage is a strong and smooth tissue made of “chondrocytes,” or specialized cartilage cells. These cells produce a matrix of collagen, proteoglycans (a special type of protein), and other non-collagenous proteins. These materials help cartilage attract water and give it its shape and specific properties.

If the cartilage begins to degenerate with age or if it were to become damaged from an injury, the joint loses some of that protective cushion and exposes underlying bone ends. This damage can lead to excess stress of those areas of bone that are ill-equipped to handle strong forces.

What is the difference between cartilage and ligaments?

The differences are:

  • A ligament is a band of tissue that connects bones to each other and ensures the joint is stable whereas cartilage is the line of connective tissue that works as a padding between the bones.
  • Cartilage allows the body to move freely by protecting the joints from rubbing against each other. Cartilage is harder and not as flexible as tendons and ligaments but is not as rigid as bone.

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References
Anderson CE. Formation, Structure and Function of Cartilage. Calif Med. 1959;91(6):321-326. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1577969/

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