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What Problems Affect Knee Cartilage?

Knee cartilage tears will cause knee pain.
A diagram of the knee, showing the articular cartilage and the lateral and medial menisci.
The bones at a person's knee joint start to rub together after its cartilage has worn away.
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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2014
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Though cartilage is typically both tough and flexible, it can wear down and sustain damage, leading to pain and loss of mobility in the knee area. Among the problems that can affect knee cartilage are degeneration and tearing. In some cases, a piece of a person’s knee cartilage may even break off, causing pain and swelling.

One problem that can affect knee cartilage is the tearing of a person’s meniscus. The meniscus is a cartilage pad that helps maintain proper weight distribution and stability across a person’s knee; each knee has two of them. The medial meniscus is within the knee while the lateral meniscus is on the outer part of a person’s knee.

The C-shaped meniscus may be damaged either because of injury to the knee or because of a degenerative condition. Often, the meniscus tears while a person is involved in a sports activity and accidentally twists his knee while simultaneously planting his full weight on the affected leg. This injury can be painful, but may be treated with painkillers, rest, and icing of the knee. In severe cases, surgery may be required.

Sometimes the meniscus suffers a tear because of age-related degeneration. As people age, knee cartilage can wear down and become brittle. When this happens, it may be easier to suffer a tear of the meniscus. A tear related to knee cartilage degeneration may also be treated with rest, ice, and medication to maintain comfort. A doctor may also recommend surgery for serious tears.

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In some cases, knee cartilage problems affect the cartilage on the ends of the bones of the knee. For example, a person may develop arthritis of the knee, which is a degenerative condition marked by the gradual wearing down of the cartilage in this area. Osteoarthritis is a common type of knee arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is marked by the gradual wear and tear of the knee cartilage. Over time and with the long use that comes with age, cartilage can start to deteriorate. As this occurs, the bones of the joints are gradually exposed and start to rub together. The result is pain, swelling, creaking knee sounds, stiffness, and impaired flexibility. Treatment may include medication, weight loss, and physical therapy. In severe cases, patients may opt for knee replacement surgery.

Osteoarthritis is most common in older people. Though it seems to be a symptom of aging, it is also more likely to develop in people who are overweight. A person may be more likely to develop it if there is a history of the condition in his family as well. Osteoarthritis can develop on its own, but traumatic injuries to the knee, including those affecting the meniscus and ligaments, can contribute to its development and progression. Fractures near the knee joint can help it along as well.

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