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Discover the fascinating role of cartilage in our bodies and its vital importance for joint health and flexibility.

USMLE Guide: Cartilage


Cartilage is a connective tissue found in various parts of the body, including joints, ribs, nose, and ears. It plays a crucial role in providing structural support, reducing friction between bones, and facilitating smooth joint movements. Understanding the anatomy, functions, and common disorders associated with cartilage is essential for medical students preparing for the USMLE exam.

Anatomy of Cartilage

Cartilage is composed of specialized cells called chondrocytes, which are embedded within a matrix consisting of collagen fibers and proteoglycans. There are three main types of cartilage:

  1. Hyaline Cartilage: Found in joints, respiratory passages, and the developing skeleton. It provides a smooth surface for joint movement and supports the growth of long bones.
  2. Elastic Cartilage: Found in the external ear and epiglottis. It contains elastic fibers, which provide flexibility and maintain shape.
  3. Fibrocartilage: Found in intervertebral discs, pubic symphysis, and certain tendons. It has a high concentration of collagen fibers, providing strength and shock absorption.

Functions of Cartilage

Cartilage serves several important functions in the body:

  1. Support: It provides structural support to body tissues and organs.
  2. Smooth Joint Movement: Hyaline cartilage covers the articulating surfaces of bones, reducing friction and allowing smooth joint movements.
  3. Shock Absorption: Fibrocartilage acts as a shock absorber in weight-bearing joints, such as the knee and spine.
  4. Growth: Cartilage is involved in the process of long bone growth in children and adolescents.

Common Cartilage Disorders

Several disorders can affect cartilage, leading to pain, stiffness, and impaired joint function. Some of the common cartilage disorders encountered in clinical practice include:

  1. Osteoarthritis: A degenerative joint disease characterized by the breakdown of cartilage, leading to joint pain, swelling, and limited range of motion.
  2. Rheumatoid Arthritis: An autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints, leading to cartilage destruction and joint deformities.
  3. Chondromalacia Patellae: Softening and damage of the cartilage on the underside of the kneecap, resulting in knee pain and instability.
  4. Avascular Necrosis: Insufficient blood supply to the bone, leading to the death of bone tissue and subsequent damage to the surrounding cartilage.
  5. Meniscal Tears: Tears or damage to the meniscus, a piece of cartilage in the knee joint, causing pain, swelling, and limited mobility.

Diagnostic Techniques

To diagnose cartilage disorders, healthcare professionals may use various diagnostic techniques, including:

  1. Physical Examination: Assessing joint range of motion, swelling, tenderness, and deformities.
  2. Imaging Studies: X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound to visualize the affected joint and assess cartilage damage.
  3. Arthroscopy: A minimally invasive procedure where a small camera is inserted into the joint to directly visualize and diagnose cartilage abnormalities.

Treatment Options

The management of cartilage disorders depends on the specific condition and its severity. Common treatment options include:

  1. Conservative Management: Rest, physical therapy, pain management, and lifestyle modifications to alleviate symptoms and improve joint function.
  2. Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), analgesics, and corticosteroid injections to reduce pain and inflammation.
  3. Surgical Interventions: In severe cases, surgical interventions like arthroscopy, cartilage transplantation, or joint replacement may be necessary.


Cartilage is a vital connective tissue that provides support, facilitates smooth joint movement, and absorbs shock. Understanding the anatomy, functions, and common disorders associated with cartilage is crucial for medical students preparing for the USMLE exam. Being familiar with diagnostic techniques and treatment options for cartilage disorders will enable physicians to provide optimal care to patients with these conditions.

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