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.
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.
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.
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.
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.