Skip to main content

What Happens When Knee Cartilage Is Damaged?

Your knee contains articular cartilage, which lines your bones and allows you to move without pain or friction. Knee cartilage damage occurs when your articular cartilage chips or wears away. 

Causes of Knee Cartilage Damage

In people younger than 50, knee cartilage damage usually occurs after an injury, such as twisting your knee, smashing your kneecap, or fracturing your knee. In people over 50, cartilage may wear down over time as part of natural aging.

Knee cartilage repair is a type of knee preservation treatment. Our orthopedic surgeons use cartilage repair procedures for patients younger than 50.

Why Choose University of Utah Health?

When you come to U of U Health for knee pain treatment, you are choosing the most experienced orthopedic surgeons. Our team is among those performing the highest number of knee cartilage procedures in the Mountain West. Our sub-specialized team also focuses solely on treating patients with knee conditions that could benefit from preservation treatment.

Our physicians use and research advanced techniques, offering eligible patients access to new clinical trial treatments unavailable elsewhere in the region. We are a regional referral center for orthopedic treatments. This means other specialists around the country send patients to us and trust our expert care.

Find a Knee Specialist

Knee Cartilage Damage Symptoms

Common knee cartilage injury symptoms include:

  • knee pain while moving;
  • puffiness or swelling around your knee; and
  • locking, catching, or grinding sensations when you move.

How Do I Know if I Have Cartilage Damage in My Knee?

The only way to know for sure whether you have cartilage damage is to see a knee specialist. Our specialists use imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or X-rays to diagnose cartilage damage.

When to See a Knee Specialist

One of the telltale signs of knee cartilage damage is swelling within the knee that feels or looks to be full of liquid or resembles a balloon. This type of swelling is common in older people and may be a symptom of arthritis. But if you’re younger than 50 and have this type of swelling, especially after a recent injury, see a knee specialist right away as it could point to a more significant injury.

Schedule an appointment with one of our knee specialists if you have knee cartilage pain or other symptoms lasting more than two to three weeks.

Knee Cartilage Damage Treatment

Our knee specialists may use nonsurgical or surgical treatments. The type of treatment we use depends on several factors, including:

  • your age and overall health;
  • the extent of the damage; and
  • whether you have another knee injury, such as a ligament tear.

Knee Cartilage Repair without Surgery

Your provider may start with nonsurgical treatments for knee cartilage damage. Nonsurgical treatment typically includes:

  • anti-inflammatory medications,
  • physical therapy to learn knee exercises, and
  • temporarily stopping activities that worsen knee pain.

When Knee Cartilage Surgery Is Needed

Our providers will advise whether you need surgery for knee cartilage damage. You’re more likely to need knee cartilage surgery if:

  • the cartilage damage is larger than one centimeter in circumference or
  • you have significant swelling or fluid around your knee.

How to Repair Knee Cartilage with Surgery

Our orthopedic surgeons use arthroscopic surgery to repair knee cartilage. Arthroscopic surgery uses small incisions (cuts) and tiny cameras. Arthroscopic knee cartilage surgery can slow or prevent the progression of arthritis. It can also lower your risk of needing a knee replacement when you’re older.

Knee Microfracture Surgery

Your orthopedic surgeon will make tiny holes (microfractures) in the surface of your knee joint and the bone beneath your knee cartilage. These holes will trigger your body’s healing process by increasing blood flow to your knee. As a result, your body will make new cells that form healthy cartilage.

Osteochondral Autograft & Allograft Transplants

Both procedures involve replacing damaged cartilage and bone with healthy tissue. We typically use autografts for smaller injuries because we can only take a limited amount of healthy tissue from your body. Our surgeons may use donor tissue for a larger injury. 

During an osteochondral autograft transplant, we will transplant your own cartilage and bone from another place in your body. An osteochondral allograft transplant uses donor tissue (donated human tissue from a cadaver) matched to your body size.

Juvenile Allograft Implantation

With juvenile allograft implantation, also called DeNovo®, we will implant donor cartilage cells into the injured area. Once the cells are implanted into your knee, they will grow and create new, healthy cartilage.

Juvenile allograft implantation is most useful in younger patients. This treatment works best for patients with cartilage damage smaller than two centimeters in diameter.

Autologous Chondrocyte Implantation

During this procedure, we will remove healthy cartilage from a non-weight-bearing area of your bone. We may take this cartilage from the notch in the middle of your knee or the far outside area that doesn’t require as much cartilage to move smoothly. We will then send this healthy cartilage sample to a lab for three to five weeks to grow more healthy cells. Then, we will inject these newly developed cells into your knee.

Meniscus Transplant

Your meniscus is a C-shaped piece of cartilage that absorbs shock and protects your knee. If you tore your meniscus in the past or had it partially removed, our orthopedic surgeons may perform a meniscus transplant. We will take a size-matched donor meniscus and transplant it to your knee.

Knee Cartilage Repair Surgery Recovery Time

You will return home the same day you have knee cartilage surgery.

Around two weeks after surgery, you’ll start physical therapy to increase your strength and range of motion. You’ll use crutches and avoid putting weight on your knee for four to six weeks.

How Long Does Knee Cartilage Take to Heal?

Initial healing after surgery for knee cartilage damage recovery takes around six weeks. It takes about three to six months to transition back to full activities, such as jogging or running.

Schedule an Appointment with a Knee Specialist

Call 801-587-7109 to schedule a visit with our knee preservation team. You don’t need a referral from your provider, but it’s important to check your insurance before making an appointment.

To refer a patient to our knee preservation team, you may fill out our referral form or call 1-866-850-8863 to speak with a physician referral specialist. When referring a patient, please send us a copy of their relevant medical records, including imaging tests. You may fax records to 801-581-4404.

What to Expect at Your Orthopedic Appointment

We provide expert care and orthopedic evaluations for adults, adolescents, and children who are experiencing problems of the bones and joints. Our orthopedic specialists diagnose and treat everything from simple sprains and strains to complex conditions.

Hear From Our Patients

Medical School Student Grateful for Care from Ortho Injury Clinic

Polly Creveling, a third-year medical student at University of Utah, was skiing through two feet of deep, fresh powder when her ski got stuck in the hard snow below. An excruciating pain shot through her knee. She was diagnosed with both a torn ACL and a meniscus tear. With the in-depth comprehensive care she received from the Orthopaedic Injury Clinic and her orthopedic surgery team, she was able to continue her athletic lifestyle and participate in her med school rotations.

Read Polly's Story

Alta ski patrol puts patient Polly Creveling into a stretcher

Hear From Our Specialists