What is cartilage and what does it do?

Back to Health Hub

Cartilage has a unique structure that makes it a strong, but flexible, connective tissue. Find out exactly what cartilage is and exactly what is does here.

Cartilage is a strong and smooth substance made up of chondrocytes, or specialized cartilage cells. These produce a matrix of collagen, proteoglycans, and other non-collagenous proteins. These materials help cartilage attract water and give it is shape and specific properties.

Cartilage is a unique tissue type because it doesn’t have blood vessels or nerves. Cartilage has a unique structure that makes it a very strong, yet flexible tissue. Throughout this article we will be answering the questions, what is cartilage? And what does cartilage do? Knee Cartilage

What is Cartilage?

Cartilage is a type of connective tissue found in many parts of the body. It is firm, flexible, and is often described as rubbery. Cartilage is a type of connective tissue found in the body. When an embryo is developing, cartilage is the precursor to bone. Some cartilage remains and is dispersed throughout the body, especially to cover the joints. Cartilage also composes most of the outer ear, it also acts a shock absorber and allows bones to slide over one another with ease.

Over time the elastin fibres in cartilage break down and, combined with gravity, stretch. Cartilage that breaks down from age and wear and tear also leads to joint pain and arthritis.

What Does Cartilage Do?

Initially, cartilage serves as the framework for bone growth from inside the womb, until we are fully grown. The other main function of cartilage is to support, cushion, and reduce friction between bones and joints.

In many ways, it acts as a shock absorber and smooth surface to aid in mobility. The cartilage functions are:

  • To provide a framework for bone growth
  • To support the body as a shock absorber
  • To provide attachment sites for muscles
  • Protect underlying tissue
  • Improve mobility and flexibility.

3 Different Types of Cartilage

There are three types of cartilage: elastic, fibrocartilage, and hyaline. Read on to find out about their differences.


Elastic cartilage, also known as yellow cartilage, is found in the ear and epiglottis, which is located in the throat, as well as parts of the nose and trachea. This cartilage serves to provide strength and elasticity to organs and body structures, such as the outer ear. It is the most spongy and springy cartilage.

Fibro or Fibrous

Fibro cartilage is found in special pads known as menisci and in the disks between your spinal bones, known as vertebrae. These pads are vital to reducing friction in joints, such as the knee. Doctors consider it the strongest of the three cartilage types. It has thick layers of strong collagen fibres.


Hyaline cartilage is the most common type in the body. This cartilage type is found in the larynx, nose, ribs, and trachea. A very thin layer of cartilage is also present in bony surfaces, such as over joints, to cushion them. This hyaline cartilage is known as articular cartilage, and is found at the ends of bones, and in the lining of joints.

The term hyaline comes from the Greek work “hyalos” which means glassy, as hyaline cartilage appears slightly glassy under a microscope. This cartilage type has many thin collage fibres that help to give strength. Despite this, hyaline cartilage is considered the weakest of the three.

Can Cartilage become damaged?

Although cartilage is quite tough, it is relatively easy to damage, especially in joints. Cartilage can become damaged after an injury or through degeneration, which is wearing down over time. After all, it is located in the arts of our body that experience the most pressure and strain.

Cartilage damage is most common in knees but also in hips, ankles, and elbows.  Some of the common conditions related to cartilage degeneration include:



This condition occurs when the when the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone becomes inflamed. While the condition is usually temporary, it can become chronic. The condition causes uncomfortable chest pain.

Herniated Disk

When the gel-like material inside the cartilage disk protrudes through the outer cartilage disk, this is known as a herniated or slipped disk. This condition is usually due to degenerative changes that occur as a side effect of ageing. Other times, a person may suffer from as severe injury or accident that can lead to a herniated disk. This condition causes severe pain in the back and often down the legs.

Can Cartilage repair itself?

While cartilage is very beneficial to the body, it does have a drawback. It doesn’t heal itself as well as most other bodily tissue. The cartilage cells known as chondrocytes do not often replicate or repair themselves, which means cartilage that is injured or damaged will not likely heal well without medial intervention.

Over the years, doctors have found some methods that can stimulate new cartilage growth. These techniques are usually used for articular cartilage on the joints. Here are just a few techniques that have been trialled and tested:

Abrasion Arthroplasty

This procedure involves using a special high-speed instrument called a burr to create small holes below damaged cartilage to stimulate cartilage repair and growth.

Autologous chondrocyte Implantation

This is cartilage repair technique requires two steps. First, a doctor removes a healthy piece of cartilage from a patient and sends the cartilage sample to a laboratory. The cells are “cultured” and stimulated to grow. Then the patient goes into surgery, where the damaged cartilage is removed and replaced with the newly grown cartilage.


This surgical technique involves removing damaged cartilage and then making small holes just beneath the cartilage in an area of bone known as the subchondral bone. This creates a new blood supply that will ideally stimulate healing.


The drilling approach is very similar to microfracture. It involves making small holes in the subchondral area as a means of stimulating healing and new cartilage growth by increasing the blood supply.Knee cartilage

Cartilage damage can be debilitating. The pain and limited mobility can keep you from doing day-to-day activities. Cartilage is a vital element in the body’s protection and function of joints. Luckily there are many treatments you can try before resorting to surgery. However, if you struggle with any cartilage pain and feel as though your symptoms may be as a result to something severe, always seek the advice from a trusted healthcare professional.

Now that you know what cartilage is and what cartilage does, and fancy knowing a bit more about the body and how it’s held together, read our article, what are ligaments, next.







Sign up to our newsletter