Diagnosing a Cartilage Injury

Whatever you’ve done to injure yourself, the first order of business is to get to the bottom of things and determine exactly what damage was done and what body parts are involved. Immediately following your accident, you’re likely to have pain and swelling and no idea what’s going on inside your injured joint.

That’s where we come in. Our team of physicians at LA Orthopaedic Specialists is a collaborative group of orthopaedic surgeons, podiatrists, and sport medicine experts. We have many years of combined experience diagnosing and treating every type of joint injury, including tears of your ACL (ligament), meniscus (cartilage), and rotator cuff (tendon). 

The initial symptoms of all these conditions are similar, so how do you know if it’s a cartilage injury or something else? Here’s what you need to know.

Cartilage 101

Cartilage is the tough, flexible tissue that covers the ends of your bones and allows them to slide smoothly over one another without friction. You can find cartilage in all your joints, and it also provides the structure of your nose and ears.

A car accident, sports injury, or any other event that twists, torques, or traumatizes your joints can potentially tear your cartilage. 

Signs of cartilage injury

The first signs of torn cartilage are easy to identify even if you’re not a medical professional. Look for:

While these are excellent indicators of torn cartilage, they aren’t definitive. To know for sure, you need a professional diagnosis.

How medical experts diagnose cartilage injuries

When you come to LA Orthopaedic Specialists with an injury that won’t get better or seems to be getting worse, we go straight to work determining the cause. 

To do that, we start with a physical exam and a detailed conversation about what happened, when it happened, what you’ve been feeling, any changes (good and bad), at-home treatments you’ve tried, and anything else relevant to your injury.

All this information is critical to your diagnosis and influences the tests we perform next. Depending on what you tell us and what we observe, we may opt for any or all of the following diagnostic tests.


X-rays are an excellent diagnostic tool because they allow us to take pictures inside your body. They use electromagnetic waves to create an image of your inner tissue, like bones — but cartilage doesn’t show up at all.

So why would we take an X-ray in a suspected cartilage injury? We do this because often the kind of injury that damages cartilage also injures other tissues. If we have reason to believe your bones are affected, too, an X-ray tells us for sure. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Another diagnostic test that proves helpful if we suspect you’ve injured your cartilage is an MRI. Like an X-ray, an MRI creates an image of the inside of your body, but it uses a magnetic field and radio waves instead of radiation. It also produces a much higher-resolution image than an X-ray and shows us your cartilage.

Because the MRI uses extremely strong magnetic waves, it’s important for you to let us know if you’re wearing any metal or have any metal inside you (like a pacemaker, pins, screws, plates, an IUD, nerve stimulators, or any other type of implanted device). 

The test is loud but noninvasive and painless, and it allows us to see the exact location and severity of your cartilage injury.  


If we suspect a cartilage tear, we may recommend an arthroscopy, a surgical procedure where we insert a tiny camera into your joint through a very small incision. Although X-rays and MRIs give us important information, arthroscopy shows us the inside of your joint in real-time and in 3D. 

Arthroscopy has several valuable advantages:

The best part about arthroscopic surgery is that it serves as both a definitive diagnostic test and an effective treatment at the same time. If we see damaged cartilage that needs to be repaired once our surgical instruments are already in your joint, we can do it on the spot.

If you’ve sustained an injury and suspect it might be your cartilage, call us at our office in Downtown Los Angeles, California, or book your appointment online today.

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