Cartilage loss is a term used to refer to loss of the articular cartilage, the cartilage which forms part of the joints. The knee joint in particular is most commonly affected by cartilage loss, usually in association with osteoarthritis, although other conditions can contribute to the loss of cartilage. Options for treatment of cartilage loss vary, depending on how far the loss has progressed and what is causing it, and a physician can evaluate a patient to provide more information about options.
Articular cartilage is a critical part of the joint. It acts as the point of articulation for the joint, being smooth, which reduces friction, but also very strong, allowing it to withstand compressive forces. It is one of the components of the joint which allows joints to move smoothly while retaining their strength. The knee is one of the hardest-used joints, which is why cartilage loss has such an impact on this particular joint in the body; as anyone who has ever bruised or banged a knee knows, even minor damage to this joint can be very limiting.
Several things can cause cartilage loss or thinning. Osteoarthritis is a common cause, as is damage to the meniscus of the joint, or recurrent inflammation in the joint. In all cases, the cartilage starts to thin and break down. Over time, this can lead to bone on bone contact in the joint, which is very undesirable. Bones, while strong, are not designed to articulate like cartilage, and considerable damage to the bones and joints can be caused when the cartilage wears away.
A doctor can diagnose cartilage loss with the assistance of medical imaging studies to look inside the joint. Reports of pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joint can also be a sign. In the short term, pain and inflammation management can be accomplished with the use of of medications. In the long term, reconstruction surgery on the joint may be required to repair it and to compensate for the cartilage loss.
If surgery is pursued, a surgeon can discuss the options for surgical management with the patient. It may not be possible to restore full function and range of motion to the joint, depending on the level of the damage and the patient's general health. After surgery, physical therapy will probably be necessary to give the patient an opportunity to condition the new joint and learn about the strengths and limitations of the joint.