Cartilage Tears

Articular cartilage is a substance that covers the ends of many of your bones. It cushions them during movement and provides a smooth surface for the bones in a joint to glide on. The meniscal cartilages in the knee differ from articular cartilage, and function as stabilizers and shock absorbers. Injury or certain medical conditions can cause the meniscal cartilage to tear.

Cartilage tears cause joint pain, swelling, locking, giving way, and loss of function. Arthroscopic surgery is commonly used to treat cartilage tears. Arthroscopic surgery is associated with relatively minimal pain and short recovery periods.

Anatomy

Cartilage covers the ends of many of your bones. It forms a smooth surface for the bones in a joint to glide on during movement. It acts as a shock absorber to cushion impacts. The menisci are specialized cartilage structures in the knee that aid stability and act as shock absorbers.

Causes

Cartilage in the knee and shoulder is especially vulnerable to tears from injury, particularly during sports. Arthritis can cause the cartilage to wear away. Chondromalacia is a term referring to cartilage softening and deterioration. Obesity puts extra stress on joints and can lead to cartilage tears, especially in the knees. Bone malalignments in the knee can contribute to uneven pressure and cartilage tears.

Symptoms

A cartilage tear causes pain, swelling, and tenderness in a joint. Your pain may increase with movement. It may feel like your joint has a catch in it when you move it. Your joint may not function as it did before. A torn piece of cartilage may move abnormally within a joint. It may prohibit movement and cause your joint to “give out,” particularly in the knee.

Diagnosis

A doctor can diagnose a cartilage tear by reviewing your medical history, performing a physical examination, and viewing medical images. You should tell your doctor about your symptoms, activities, and circumstances that lead to an injury. Your doctor will perform a thorough examination of your joint.

Your doctor will order X-rays to see the condition of your bones and identify arthritis. Your doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. A MRI scan provides a very detailed picture of your joint, particularly showing the cartilage and ligaments.

Treatment

Cartilage does not have a good blood supply and is not able to heal itself. Tears cause the cartilage to deteriorate over time. Consequently, most cartilage tears require surgery for treatment.

Surgery

Arthroscopic surgery is commonly used to treat meniscal cartilage tears. It allows surgeons to see, diagnose, and treat problems inside a joint. Arthroscopic surgery uses an arthroscope and narrow surgical instruments that are inserted through small incisions. An arthroscope contains a lens and lighting system that allow a surgeon to view inside of a joint. The arthroscope is attached to a miniature camera. The camera allows the surgeon to view the magnified images on a video screen or take photographs and record videotape.

Recovery

Arthroscopy is less invasive than open surgical procedures. It is associated with a decreased risk of infection, minimal bleeding, less pain, and a shorter recovery period. Your doctor will let you know what to expect.