Cartilage: What Is It and Why Is It So Important?

You probably already know quite a bit about cartilage -- that it’s flexible tissue, it’s what your ears are made of, and that it cushions your joints. But, cartilage is a unique body tissue and plays various important roles in your body. 

At Downtown Pain Management, many of our patients have problems with cartilage. In many cases, joint pain is caused in part by cartilage issues, back pain may be cartilage related, and many injuries affect your cartilage. Dr. Ron Ben-Meir is an expert in helping you find ways to manage pain, and often that means developing a better understanding of why you’re in pain, including what cartilage may have to do with it.  

What is cartilage? 

Cartilage is connective tissue, but there are several aspects of it that make it different from ligaments or tendons. For example, when a baby is developing, it has cartilage instead of bones. Also, it’s avascular -- it doesn't have blood vessels or nerves. 

Cartilage cells are suspended in a gel-like substance that provides nourishment to them through a process called diffusion. Since cartilage cells aren’t directly nourished through blood flow, it’s slower to heal than other tissues in your body. 

Not all cartilage is the same, either. There are three distinct types: 

Hyaline cartilage

The word hyaline is derived from the Greek word for glass because hyaline cartilage looks like glass. When an embryo is developing, it has hyaline cartilage instead of bones. It later ossifies and becomes bone. Hyaline cartilage is the most common of the three types. 

Hyaline cartilage is found in your joints where it covers each end of the meeting bones. It’s also in your larynx, nose, ribs, and in your trachea. 

Fibrous or fibrocartilage

In certain parts of your body, such as your knees and between your vertebrae, there are small discs of cartilage that protect the bones as you move. These discs are made up of fibro or fibrous cartilage. 

Fibrocartilage is the strongest of the three types and has thick layers of collagen. 

Elastic cartilage

When you think of cartilage, you probably think of elastic cartilage. It’s the type found in your ear, parts of your nose, and your epiglottis, which is a structure in your throat. It provides strength and elasticity to those parts of your body. 

The importance of cartilage

Each of the three types of cartilage serves an important purpose, and when it’s damaged you experience pain. For example, if you have osteoarthritis of the knee, the hyaline cartilage that covers and protects the ends of the bones that meet to form your knee joint may be worn thin, making it painful for you to bend and straighten your knee. Arthritis is more complicated than that, but osteoarthritis of the knee involves some damage or wearing of your cartilage. 

Similarly, the discs between your vertebrae that are made up of fibrocartilage allow you to move and bend comfortably. A bulging or ruptured disc is painful and is also an instance of damaged cartilage. 

In many cases of cartilage damage, it’s simply a matter of wear and tear and time. Your body weakens and breaks down over time, and cartilage does, too. There are things you can do, such as living an overall healthy lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight, and practicing exercises to remain strong and flexible, that can help slow the process. 

Cartilage is slow to heal or sometimes doesn’t heal at all. But there are treatments that can help. If you suspect you have damage to your cartilage, schedule an appointment at Downtown Pain Management. 

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