What is cartilage?
Cartilage is a strong, flexible connective tissue that protects your joints and bones. It acts as a shock absorber throughout your body.
Cartilage at the end of your bones reduces friction and prevents them from rubbing together when you use your joints. It’s also the main tissue in some parts of your body and gives them their structure and shape.
Damage to your cartilage can happen suddenly — like a sports injury or other trauma — but it can also build up over the course of your life and lead to osteoarthritis.
Anything that injures or damages your cartilage can make it hard or impossible to use your joints the way you’re used to.
What does cartilage do?
Cartilage protects your bones and joints. It surrounds the ends of your bones and cushions the spaces in your joints where bones meet. Cartilage has three jobs:
- Absorbing shock: Cartilage cushions your bones and joints when you move and use them. It absorbs force and reduces how much stress an impact puts on your bones. Think about the difference between jumping up and down in bare feet and wearing running shoes. Cartilage acts like the cushion in your sneakers on the inside of your joints and around your bones.
- Reducing friction: Cartilage lubricates your joints. It helps your bones slide past each other without rubbing together. This lets your joints work as smoothly as they should and reduces wear and tear on them.
- Supporting structures in your body: Cartilage helps your joints keep their shape while moving. It also connects other tissue together and to your bones. Muscles, tendons and ligaments are connected to cartilage throughout your body.
Cartilage is also the main tissue in some parts of your body including your:
- Windpipe (your trachea).
Where is cartilage located?
Almost any place where two bones meet in your body is cushioned by cartilage. It’s also at the ends of all your bones that form joints.
Types of cartilage
There are three types of cartilage in your body:
- Hyaline cartilage.
- Elastic cartilage.
Hyaline cartilage is the most common type of cartilage in your body. It lines your joints and caps the ends of your bones. Hyaline cartilage at the ends of your bones is sometimes referred to as articular cartilage.
Hyaline cartilage is slippery and smooth which helps your bones move smoothly past each other in your joints. It’s flexible but strong enough to help your joints hold their shape.
Hyaline cartilage locations in your body include:
- At the ends of bones that form joints.
- Between your ribs.
- In your nasal passages.
Fibrocartilage is what its name sounds like: tough cartilage made of thick fibers. It’s the strongest and least flexible of the three types. It’s tough enough to hold parts of your body in place and absorb impacts.
Fibrocartilage locations in your body include:
- The meniscus in your knee.
- In disks between the vertebrae in your spine.
- Supporting muscles, tendons and ligaments throughout your body.
Elastic cartilage is your most flexible cartilage. It supports parts of your body that need to bend and move to function. Elastic cartilage can bounce back to its original shape, even after a strong force. Your ear is made of elastic cartilage. It can bend and move without hurting you before returning to its usual shape.
Elastic cartilage locations in your body include:
Conditions and Disorders
What common conditions affect my cartilage?
The most common issues that affect your cartilage include:
- Injuries: Sports injuries or other traumas can damage or tear cartilage. Some of the most common sports injuries like a torn meniscus or a separated shoulder can damage the cartilage in your joints. Injuring a joint can cause osteochondritis dissecans (sometimes called osteochondral lesions).
- Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. In fact, 80% of adults older than 55 have some amount of it. As you age, the cartilage in your joints can break down. Eventually, this can lead to pain and inflammation in your joint because there’s not as much cushioning and lubrication as there used to be.
- Herniated disks: Herniated disks — also sometimes referred to as slipped, ruptured or bulging disks — happen when the disk of cartilage between your vertebrae (the bones that make up your spine) is torn or punctured.
What tests are done to cartilage?
Your healthcare provider usually won’t check your cartilage on its own. Instead, they’ll perform a physical exam to feel for damage or to diagnose your symptoms, or will use imaging tests to see inside your body, including:
Which tests you’ll need depends on
What treatments are done to cartilage?
How your injured cartilage is treated depends on where in your body it is, and how it was damaged. Usually, if you tear or rupture cartilage, you’ll also hurt other parts near it. Your provider or surgeon will focus on treating your whole injury, which will involve the cartilage.
Some cartilage injuries heal on their own with rest and time, but others require surgery (usually an arthroscopy) to repair. Your surgeon might stitch your cartilage back together, but they also might reshape it (you might see this referred to as trimming or shaving) to restore its function. Talk to your provider or surgeon about what to expect and how long it will take to recover.
Because cartilage is avascular (a medical term meaning it doesn’t directly receive blood flow), it usually takes longer to heal than other parts of your body.
How do I take care of my cartilage?
General healthy habits will help your cartilage (and the structures it supports) work like it should, including:
- Exercising regularly.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Not smoking or using tobacco products.
If you’re recovering from an injury, follow your provider’s or surgeon’s instructions to help your body heal. You might need to avoid using the injured part of your body for a few weeks (or longer).
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cartilage is an important part of your ability to stand, move and do anything else that uses your joints and bones. It absorbs shocks and helps your bones move smoothly.
If you injure your cartilage — especially in a joint — it might take a while to recover. But don’t rush your body’s healing process. If you resume physical activities like sports or running before your cartilage has fully healed, there’s a good chance you’ll re-injure it.
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