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Cartilage damage

Find out about the symptoms, causes and treatments for cartilage damage, and when you should seek medical attention.

3 October 2018


Cartilage damage is a relatively common type of injury. It often involves the knees, although joints such as the hips, ankles and elbows can also be affected.

Cartilage is a tough, flexible tissue found throughout the body. It covers the surface of joints, acting as a shock absorber and allowing bones to slide over one another.

It can become damaged as a result of a sudden injury, such as a sports injury ↗, or gradual wear and tear (osteoarthritis) ↗.

Minor cartilage injuries may get better on their own within a few weeks, but more severe cartilage damage may eventually require surgery.

Symptoms of cartilage damage

Symptoms of cartilage damage in a joint include:

  • joint pain ↗ – this may continue even when resting and worsen when you put weight on the joint
  • swelling – this may not develop for a few hours or days
  • stiffness
  • a clicking or grinding sensation
  • the joint locking, catching, or giving way

It can sometimes be difficult to tell a cartilage injury apart from other common joint injuries, such as sprains ↗, as the symptoms are similar.

When to get medical advice

If you've injured your joint, it's a good idea to try self care measures first. Sprains and minor cartilage damage may get better on their own within a few days or weeks.

More severe cartilage damage probably won't improve on its own. If left untreated, it can eventually wear down the joint.

Visit your GP or a minor injuries unit (MIU) ↗ if:

  • you can't move the joint properly
  • you can't control the pain with ordinary painkillers
  • you can't put any weight on the injured limb or it gives way when you try to use it
  • the injured area looks crooked or has unusual lumps or bumps (other than swelling)
  • you have numbness, discolouration, or coldness in any part of the injured area
  • your symptoms haven't started to improve within a few days of self-treatment

Your GP may need to refer you for tests such as an X-ray ↗, MRI scan ↗, or arthroscopy ↗ to find out if your cartilage is damaged.

Treatments for cartilage damage

Self care measures are usually recommended as the first treatment for minor joint injuries.

For the first few days:

Get medical advice if your symptoms are severe or don't improve after a few days. You may need professional treatment, such as physiotherapy ↗, or possibly surgery.

A number of surgical techniques can be used, including:

  • 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
  • replacing the entire joint with an artificial one, such as a knee replacement ↗ or hip replacement ↗ – this is usually only necessary in the most severe cases

Read more about how cartilage damage is treated ↗.