What is Cartilage and What Does it Do?

Cartilage is a special connective tissue that’s similar to bone. It also has a lot of important differences that are useful for protecting bones and helping kids grow. Keep reading to learn about the purpose of cartilage and why it’s so amazing.

All about cartilage for kids

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 acts like soft carpet. Because the purpose of cartilage is to make you feel protected and comfortable, people also compare it to pillows or cushions.

Differences between bone versus cartilage - color and texture

How is cartilage different than bone?

Cartilage and bone look, feel, and act differently!

More flexible

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.

No nerves or blood vessels

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

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. They are made of cartilage and located near the ends of long bones, like the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone).

In growth plate areas, 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 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, it doesn’t hurt when it’s damaged. If a person feels joint pain, that means that the surrounding bones are damaged, too. The nerves in the bones send off painful warning signals.

Without blood vessels to bring fresh oxygen and nutrients, broken cartilage has a hard time healing and growing back. That’s why you need to take good care of these natural cushions in your body.

3 ways to protect your cartilage

  • KEEP A HEALTHY WEIGHT – Extra weight on your body can put too much stress on your joints. Try to exercise everyday 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!

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Human Body Learning Lab is the best anatomy book for kids! Have fun learning science facts and health tips with cool hands-on projects and diverse, realistic images!

Updated on May 2, 2023 by Betty Choi, MD

Updated on May 2, 2023

by Betty Choi, MD