Cartilage can heal—if you give it the chance
Your cartilage constantly grows and maintains itself throughout your life. It was long believed that cartilage had a limited ability to repair itself because chondrocytes, the cells that produce and maintain cartilage, could not migrate out of their designated area. However, recent research has shown that chondrocytes actually can migrate, more or less depending on the specific situation and environment.
And in 2019, researchers from Duke University in North Carolina and Lund University in Sweden published a fascinating study in which they measured protein turnover in articular cartilage in human hips, knees, and ankles. They found that human cartilage has a greater innate ability to regenerate itself than previously thought. Their findings show a potential link to a capacity “for regeneration that might be exploited to enhance joint repair and establish a basis for human limb regeneration.”
There is still much to be learned about cartilage, but it’s clear that it has greater ability to repair itself than we thought—we simply need to give it the chance.
There are two factors that get in the way of cartilage healing, one of which we can’t change, and one that we can.
First is the fact that most cartilage does not have a blood supply of its own, so it relies on the pumping action from joint movement to diffuse blood and other nutrients through joint fluid. Too much compression and too little compression both spell trouble for cartilage; it needs a moderate amount of movement, involving regular loading and unloading of weight, to remain healthy.
Due to the indirect way in which cartilage receives nutrients, its healing process is fairly slow. And if cartilage repair can’t keep up with the rate at which you do damage, cartilage will continue to get worn away until it’s gone for good.
The second hindrance to cartilage healing is the fact that most people don’t know exactly what to do in order to most effectively let their cartilage repair itself. Many people are willing to rest their joints in order to let them heal, but rest alone does not fix the underlying problem of habitual body use.
In order to change the deeply learned muscular patterns that dictate your posture and movement, you must retrain your muscle memory using neuromuscular education. Exercises that use pandiculation to release subconsciously held muscle tension allow you to even out imbalances and restore natural, efficient body use. You can stop putting unnatural pressure on your joints by retraining your posture and movement with very slow, gentle Clinical Somatics exercises.
As you release your tight muscles and change your habitual patterns, you can also begin a gentle strengthening routine in which you repetitively load and unload your joints, very gradually increasing weight over time. This should be done under the supervision of a qualified physical therapist.