What is a Cartilage Tear?

D. Jeffress

Most of the body's joints contain soft tissue called cartilage that helps to absorb shock and protect the ends of bones. A cartilage tear can occur with a direct injury, frequent overuse of a joint, or a degenerative condition such as arthritis. Small tears may only cause slight discomfort and swelling with physical activity, but a large tear in a major body joint can be debilitating. It is important to visit a doctor if a joint feels stiff and painful to receive an accurate diagnosis and make sure that bones and ligaments are intact. Most people can recover from their injuries with rest and medications, but surgery may be necessary for a bad cartilage tear.

Cartilage tears may occur in the knees, which may lead to pain.
Cartilage tears may occur in the knees, which may lead to pain.

In theory, any body joint can suffer a cartilage tear. Injuries are most common in joints that are subjected to the most pressure, including the knees, ankles, wrists, and spine. Tears are frequently the result of sudden, awkward twists, falls, and bends. Overusing a joint can gradually put strain on cartilage and other types of tissue, which can cause weakness and swelling. Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and other degenerative conditions destroy tissue and greatly increase the likelihood of a cartilage tear.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed to treat torn cartilage.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed to treat torn cartilage.

Tears that are the result of gradual degeneration may not be noticeable right away. A person may notice tenderness, swelling and stiffness following activity that goes away after a few hours of rest. In the event of an acute injury, pain and swelling are often immediate. A tear in the knee, hip, or ankle can make it uncomfortable or impossible to bear weight.

Medical evaluation is important after an acute injury or when chronic symptoms worsen. A doctor can check for a cartilage tear by feeling the joint, asking about symptoms, and taking imaging scans. X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging tests may reveal cartilage deterioration and any other damage to tendons, ligaments, and bone endings. Treatment decisions are made based on the severity of damage and symptoms.

Patients with relatively minor tears are usually given pain medications and instructed to rest their joints for about two weeks. Using ice packs and keeping a sore joint elevated can help relieve swelling. Once symptoms resolve, light exercise may be recommended to rebuild flexibility before returning to normal activity levels.

Serious tears are unlikely to heal sufficiently on their own, but surgery can be performed to repair or replace tissue. A surgeon may suture a tear, implant new cartilage tissue, or insert supportive metal screws in the joint. With several months of physical therapy, most patients are able to recover after joint surgery.

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