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.
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
- 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
Treatments for cartilage damage
Self care measures are usually recommended as the first treatment for minor joint injuries.
For the first few days:
- protect the affected area from further injury by using a support, such as a knee brace
- rest the affected joint
- elevate the affected limb and apply an ice pack to the joint regularly
- take ordinary painkillers, such as paracetamol ↗ or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) ↗
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 ↗.