What Is The Purpose of Cartilage?

Imagine walking barefoot on soft carpet and then hard concrete. Which would feel more comfortable to you? The soft carpet of course! In your skeleton, cartilage is just like soft carpet. Cartilage is a special connective tissue that’s similar to bone. But cartilage has a lot of important differences that are useful for protecting bones and helping kids grow.

How is cartilage different than bone?

Cartilage and bone look, feel, and act differently!

Cartilage is more flexible than bone.

Bone is very hard and stiff, but cartilage can bend a little so they can cushion the weight of things pressing against it. Cartilage also feels smooth so your bones don’t rub against each other.

Cartilage has no nerves or blood vessels.

This is a big difference! While bones have lots of nerves and blood vessels, cartilage does not.

Differences between bone versus cartilage - color and texture

What parts of the body have cartilage?

You can find cartilage throughout the human body! Here are just a few important body parts with cartilage.

Between joints

Since bones are hard on the outside, they need cartilage to cushion your joints – the places where your bones connect and move together.

Knee joint anatomy - labeled bone diagram
Knee joint with cartilage - meniscus

In the knee, cartilage can be found at the ends of the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone). Since this joint busy carrying your body weight when you walk, run, and jump, it needs extra support. The meniscus is an important pad of cartilage in your knee joint that acts like a shock absorber when you move.

In your spine, discs made of cartilage protect your vertebrae (backbone). These cartilage discs prevent each of the back bones from rubbing together.

Rib cage

Because your lungs get bigger and smaller with each breath, your rib cage needs to change its size, too. This is why the rib cage needs so much flexible cartilage between the sternum and rib bones.

Nose and ears

Pinch your nose and tug on your ears! Thanks to the rubbery cartilage in your nose and ear, you can make these body parts move.

Here’s a quick video that shows why the nose is so wiggly!

Growth plates

Growth plates are special growing zones that only kids have. Growth plates are made of cartilage and located near the ends of long bones, like the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone). In this area, new cells are made, which makes your bones get longer. This is how you grow taller!

Why do kids have more cartilage than adults?

The skeleton has more cartilage at birth

Babies are mostly made of cartilage! This is why a baby can fit in a uterus and squeeze out of the birth canal.

Cartilage is replaced by bone

As children grow up, a lot of the cartilage in their body is replaced by harder bone.

Cartilage wears down with age

Over time, the cartilage in our joints gets worn down. After many years of cartilage rubbing against hard bones, it breaks down and wears away.

What happens if cartilage gets damaged?

Cartilage is the reason that kids can move around without pain.

Because adults have less cartilage, they often have pain in their back, knees, and other joints.

Joints can also get busted from a hard fall or playing competitive sports, even in a young person. When cartilage is injured, the joint has less protective cushion, so the bone can get too much stress and pressure. The chances of the bone breaking in this area could be a higher.

Why cartilage has trouble healing

Since cartilage has no nerves, a damaged cartilage doesn’t cause pain by itself. If a person feels joint pain, that means that the surrounding bones have some damage, and the nerves in the bones are sending off pain warning signals.

Without blood vessels to bring fresh oxygen and nutrients, broken cartilage has a hard time healing and growing back. That’s why we need to take good care of our cartilage.

  • KEEP A HEALTHY WEIGHT – Extra weight on your body can put too much stress on your joints. Exercise every day and choose nutritious food to help you have a weight that fits your body.
  • DO LOW-IMPACT EXERCISE – Swimming, walking, and riding a bicycle are more gentle on your joints compared to other activities.
  • PUMP UP THE MUSCLES – When muscles around the joint are strong, this will help support the cartilage inside the joint. Yoga is a great way to make muscles stronger at any age.

Learn more about your amazing body!

Updated on March 19, 2023 by Betty Choi, MD

Updated on March 19, 2023

by Betty Choi, MD