Cartilage (connective tissue) is a strong and smooth tissue made of specialized cartilage cells called chondrocytes. These cells produce a matrix of collagen, proteoglycans, and other non-collagenous proteins. Together, these help cartilage attract water and give its shape and specific properties. In addition, there are three different types of cartilage:
- Elastic cartilage – Elastic cartilage provides support to the shape of flexible body parts, like our ears and larynx. This cartilage is also found in your epiglottis, which is the flap attached to the base of the tongue that prevents food and liquids from entering your windpipe as you eat and drink.
- Articular cartilage – This cartilage is found at the end of the bones in your joints, which makes it easier to move. Healthy articular cartilage allows your joints to change position without any grinding or friction.
- Fibrocartilage – This is a flexible, elastic, tough form of cartilage that provides cushioning in the joints. The meniscus in the knee joint is made of half-moon-shaped fibrocartilage, and so is the ring-shaped labrum that cushions our hip and shoulder joints. Fibrocartilage tissues absorb approximately a third of joint impact load but are not as smooth as the articular cartilage that coats the bones themselves.
As cartilage is a highly organized structure but does not have its own blood supply, it is particularly difficult to restore or duplicate once it is damaged or lost (cartilage damage). Injury to any part of this complex system can disrupt the functional properties of cartilage, such as:
- Articular cartilage damage – If articular cartilage is involved, this may lead to further degeneration of the joint.
- Airway cartilage damage – If airway cartilage is involved, this can lead to drastic breathing problems.
- Cartilage damage in the ear / nose – If the cartilage of the ear or nose is involved, cosmetic problems might result.