Your joints play an important role in your everyday life, helping you stand, sit, walk and do lots of other common (and not-so-common) tasks. When your joints are healthy, they bend and move without a second thought. But when they’re damaged, even the slightest movement can be painful. Lots of factors contribute to healthy joint function, but one of the biggest influences is your articular cartilage.
What is articular cartilage?
Articular cartilage is the smooth, rubbery tissue that coats the surfaces of the bones that make up a joint. It’s called “articular” cartilage because it plays an important role in articulation, or normal joint movement. In your knees, your articular cartilage takes a real beating. Not only does it help your knees bend, but the cartilage is also subjected to a lot of weight from walking, jumping and other activities.
All that repetitive impact and weight-bearing is a primary reason why so many people suffer from painful knee arthritis. Osteoarthritis (in the knees and elsewhere) occurs when the cartilage that “cushions” the bones starts to break down. Friction inside the joint increases, leading to inflammation. Over time, the cartilage can completely wear away, exposing bare bone and causing a lot of pain and disability.
How does articular cartilage contribute to the knee joint?
Articular cartilage function relies on its unique structure. Knee cartilage is composed of different layers of tissue. These layers act together to respond to pressure and force. They also help distribute weight evenly to the underlying bone. The surface of cartilage is slick, which helps the bones move smoothly inside the joint. That slick surface also reduces friction so painful inflammation stays at bay.
In a perfect world, our cartilage would be able to regenerate and heal itself rapidly to keep our joints moving without pain or stiffness. But in the real world, that’s not the case. Unlike our skin and other tissues, articular cartilage has no blood vessels of its own to bring in nutrients. And it also has a very limited ability to repair itself. For this reason, it’s very important to keep your cartilage healthy to begin with. And it’s critically important to see Dr. Van Thiel at the first sign of joint pain or stiffness.
What progression of symptoms occur when articular cartilage damage is left untreated?
The earliest signs of articular cartilage damage can be hard to detect. Over time, we might notice some clicking or grinding sensations, or maybe a little stiffness in the knee joint. Initially, these symptoms might only be noticeable with weight-bearing activities or after a day of heavy exercise. As the damage continues, friction inside the joint increases. That’s usually when pain begins — and when we really start to take notice.
In the first stages of articular cartilage damage, it’s pretty easy to attribute mild discomfort to overuse, particularly when it follows a daylong hike or a strenuous bike ride. But even mild discomfort is a clear signal that your articular cartilage is already damaged. And ignoring your symptoms at this point sets the stage for much more serious damage that can lead to increasing pain and disability.
What can you do to prevent damage progression and how can you repair the damage already present?
One of the best ways to prevent articular cartilage damage is to maintain a healthy weight. Since your knees have to carry your weight all day, getting rid of excess pounds takes a lot of stress off the joint surfaces. When that stress is reduced, your cartilage is less likely to pit, break down and wear away.
Strengthening exercises are another great way to keep your knees healthy. Strong leg muscles help reduce strain on your knee joints. They also help keep your joints properly aligned so loads are more evenly distributed. Most knee strengthening programs focus primarily on the quadriceps and hamstrings in your thighs, but strengthening your lower legs and your core is important too.
Avoid exercises and activities that involve squatting or kneeling for a long time. Also stay away from high-impact exercises that put a lot of strain on your joints.
Get help for painful knees
If your cartilage is already damaged, don’t despair. Even though cartilage isn’t great at repairing itself on its own, there are cartilage restoration procedures that can help. Dr. Van Thiel is a leader in state-of-the-art cartilage restoration treatments. At OrthoIllinois, Dr. Van Thiel offers several options, including tissue grafts, cell implants and other cutting-edge treatments.
Knee pain isn’t always caused by arthritis — but all types of knee pain need medical evaluation to prevent serious joint problems. If you’re having knee pain, swelling or any other signs of joint damage, don’t ignore your symptoms. Call OrthoIllinois today at (779)774-1110 and schedule an office visit with Dr. Van Thiel.