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Cartilage Injuries

Cartilage is a tissue that covers the ends of bones where they meet, allowing them to slide over one another generating very little friction. Cartilage injuries are relatively common and often affect the knees, hips and ankles.

What is cartilage injuries?

Cartilage injuries can be caused by a sudden injury or gradual wear and tear. Cartilage damage does not heal by itself and can lead to pain on movement of the affected joint.

Pain and swelling from minor cartilage injuries may improve on their own within a few weeks, but more severe damage will often require intervention.

What are the symptoms of cartilage injuries?

The symptoms of cartilage injuries are similar to other common joint injuries and include:

  • Joint pain – this may continue when resting and worsen when putting pressure on the joint
  • Inflammation or swelling – this may develop after a few hours or days
  • A clicking or grinding sensation
  • Joint giving way – you cannot put any weight on the injured limb or gives way
  • Joint catching or locking – this can lead to bleeding in the joint (hemarthrosis)
  • Stiffness
  • Bumps and lumps – the injured area looks crooked or has unusual lumps
  • Range limitation – as the damage develops, you cannot move the joint properly

What causes cartilage injuries?

The cartilage can become damaged as a result of:

  • Sudden injury– direct impact or twisting movement during a fall, accident or playing sports
  • Gradual wear and tear –if your joint experiences a long period of stress, the cartilage gets worn and eventually worn away completely developing osteoarthritis
  • Inactivity– lack of strength in the surrounding supporting musculature may increase the risk of damage

How is cartilage injuries diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your medical history, including details of any prior injuries, alongside information about the exercise you do. They will ask you to move your limb in certain ways while they look for any problems in movement and grinding joints as well as stiffness and weakness in the joint.

They may take an X-ray or MRI scan to find out whether you have a cartilage injury.

How is cartilage injuries treated?

Your doctor will recommend self-care measures as the first treatment for minor joint injuries.

For the first few days:

  • Protect the affected area from further injury by using a support, such as a knee brace
  • Rest the affected joint
  • Elevate the injured limb and apply an ice pack to the joint regularly
  • Take painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs and medications

If the above treatments don’t work, you may be advised the following:

  • Physical therapy (this usually means you meet with a physical therapist to learn some gentle movement exercises, and can then continue with the exercises on your own at home to strengthen your affected joint)

If cartilage damage is severe or not responding to physical therapy, your doctor might recommend a number of surgical techniques, including:

  • Carrying out an arthroscopy, to visualise the area of cartilage damage and carry out simple procedures such as encouraging the growth of new cartilage by drilling small holes in the nearby bone
  • Replacing the damaged cartilage with healthy cartilage taken from another part of the joint
  • Change the alignment of the joint, to allow stresses to pass through healthier areas of cartilage, with osteotomy surgery
  • Replacing damaged surfaces with implants, such as partial or total knee replacement or hip replacement

This content has been checked and approved by

Mr Sam Oussedik  ›

Mr Sam Oussedik is a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon with an NHS practice at UCLH.

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