What Problems Affect Ankle Cartilage?

N. Madison
N. Madison

Ankle cartilage is tough, flexible tissue that is inside a person’s ankle joint. It provides a cushioning effect, keeping the anklebones from rubbing together and helping absorb shocks created when a person moves. Sometimes, this cartilage may tear or separate from the bone to which it is attached due to an injury such as a fracture or sprain. It may even wear down on its own over a long period of time due to age, exercise and repetitive motions.

Regular x-rays may not be very helpful in diagnosing damage to ankle cartilage.
Regular x-rays may not be very helpful in diagnosing damage to ankle cartilage.

One type of ankle condition occurs when ankle cartilage becomes overly worn. When this happens, the bones lose their cushioning and begin to rub against each other. In addition to this abnormal grinding, sections of ankle cartilage may break away from the main piece and move into a person’s ankle joint. This causes pain and inflammation. Fluid may also accumulate in the lining of the ankle joint, which causes the area to become stiff and swollen.

One type of ankle condition occurs when ankle cartilage becomes overly worn.
One type of ankle condition occurs when ankle cartilage becomes overly worn.

The wearing away of ankle cartilage isn’t merely problematic for the ankle joint. It can cause problems for other parts of the body as well. For example, the continued wearing away of ankle cartilage can excessively narrow space inside the ankle joint. In turn, other joints in the body become unbalanced. Eventually, a person’s leg and foot may even develop abnormalities, which may be not only painful, but also debilitating.

A CAT scan can help a doctor see a cross-sectional image of the ankle to check for cartilage damage.
A CAT scan can help a doctor see a cross-sectional image of the ankle to check for cartilage damage.

Like cartilage in other parts of the body, ankle cartilage can tear. This may happen because of an injury in the area. For example, the cartilage may tear when the ankle is fractured or sprained. Cartilage in this area may tear, however, in the absence of any obvious injury. In fact, a tear may even develop spontaneously.

Cartilage in the ankle can tear or become worn down, causing pain.
Cartilage in the ankle can tear or become worn down, causing pain.

Unlike some other parts of the body, blood flow to ankle cartilage is usually inadequate for healing tears. Instead of healing on its own, the cartilage in this area may loosen from the bone that surrounds it. This leaves the bones to grind together and free pieces of cartilage to float around in the ankle joint. The result is pain in the ankle as well swelling in the area.

Injuries and conditions that involve ankle cartilage can be hard to diagnose using regular x-rays. To see and diagnose cartilage injuries in the ankle, doctors may use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which employs magnetic fields and radio waves to make images of the ankle. In some cases, a doctor may order a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan instead of or in addition to an MRI. A CAT scan is a special type of x-ray technique that allows doctors to obtain cross-sectional images of the ankle.

When torn, cartilage in the ankle -- as well as other parts of the body -- can be difficult or impossible to heal.
When torn, cartilage in the ankle -- as well as other parts of the body -- can be difficult or impossible to heal.
N. Madison
N. Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments

Ocelot60

My sister had an ankle cartilage injury, and it took her several trips to the doctor to get a diagnosis. Since this type of injury is not as common as sprains and breaks, it is more difficult to get an accurate diagnosis.

Raynbow

If you have ankle pain and you think that a cartilage injury is the root of your problem, you should ask your doctor to perform an MRI. This test will give more accurate readings of problems with soft tissues like cartilage. Plus, having this type of diagnostic test instead of x-rays or a CT scan will prevent unnecessary exposure to radiation.

Though some doctors are hesitant to prescribe a costly MRI for the first diagnostic test for an ankle problem, in the long run having one could save money.

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