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What are joints? An essential guide

When two bones meet, they form a “joint”, and where the joint is located determines its role and function.

Function of joints

An interesting thing about joints is on their own they’re limited in what they can do, but when used all together they can do some amazing things. Our joints are the foundation that provide the human body with its shape. They are formed from the bones of our skeletal system, which is pretty incredible. Bones have the ability to create red blood cells and act as storage sites for minerals, so it’s important that we know how to look after them.

When most people think about joints, it’s hard to look past the fact that bones connect them, but there are so many little-known components that allow that joint to do what it needs to do. Joints are usually surrounded by ligaments, which provide stability and structure. A ligament is a form of connective tissue that connects bone to bone, without which our joints would have no structure. 

Joints benefit our bodies in many ways, and the benefits vary depending on the type of joint. Some joints are designed to move more than others, and these help us with things like movement and flexibility. Some joints don’t move very much at all, and these are perfect for protecting our vital organs. There are usually two ways we classify the joints in our body, and this is based on their structure and function.

Joints are essential for “locomotion”, which means movement from one place to another. In short, they enable different parts of the body to move, but they also facilitate stability. This means they play a fundamental part in our everyday activities, such as playing sports, going to the gym, or even going out to meet with friends. 

Joints are composed of hard tissue (bone) and soft tissue (ligaments) and it is essential that they both do their parts. Synovial joints help to produce synovial fluid which helps the joints move more smoothly. This fluid also helps to nourish the joint.

Are you still with me?

So, now that you know a little more about what our joints do, it’s time to dive into the different types of joints! 

Types of joints

There are three main classifications of joints: synovial, fibrous and cartilaginous. I know they are a bit of a mouthful, but bear with me, it will make sense shortly. 

Joints that are synovial in nature are classified by the presence of what we call a synovial capsule. This capsule surrounds the joint and helps to keep the joint safe. This capsule has many roles, helping the ligaments by adding stability and absorbing shock. It also helps keep the joint nice and healthy by secreting synovial fluid that lubricates the joint and allows for smoother movement. 

Fibrous joints are named so because they are bound by strong fibrous tissue. And these joints don’t glide and move as easily as our synovial joints due to the tightness of the fibrous tissue. Instead, these joints tend to favour strength and stability over movement and are ideal for protection. The sutures that connect the different parts of the skull (cranium) together are examples of fibrous joints; they move slightly to allow for growth, but their main role is to protect the brain. 

This leads us to our last joint type, cartilaginous joints. You can probably guess that this joint has something to do with cartilage and you are absolutely correct!

These joints are nearly entirely joined by cartilage, usually either hyaline cartilage or fibrocartilage. These joints generally allow more movement than fibrous joints, but less than synovial joints. An example of one of these joints in the human body are the intervertebral discs that are found in our spinal column. Cartilaginous joints are important as they form the growth regions or ‘growth plates’ of the skeletal system, therefore, looking after the health of these joints can be an important factor in preventing disease caused by ageing.

Common joint problems

Sprains

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments at a joint, and these most commonly occur in traumatic instances such as rolling your ankle or twisting your knee. A sprain can vary from a mild tear to a complete rupture of a ligament and the severity of this injury is commonly graded 1-3.  

A Grade 1 sprain comprises structural damage on a microscopic level with local tenderness, while a Grade 3 sprain is a severe injury involving damage to most of the fibres of the ligament as well as joint instability and significant swelling. Usually, a mild sprain can get better within 4-6 weeks, but this is dependent on how well you manage it and in cases involving active people, it’s key that they practice rehabilitation.

Arthritis

Another common problem we see in the joints is arthritis. Arthritis refers to joint inflammation, although people with chronic arthritic problems may have a decreased amount of inflammation present. This is because after a while, the body starts to dial back on how well it deals with this inflammation and the responses of the immune system can become slow and sluggish. There are also a few different types of arthritis, such as Osteoarthrosis (OA) and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Osteoarthritis is a degenerative form of arthritis and is also the most common form in the UK. It causes joints to become stiff due to the protective cartilage within your joints breaking down. This breakdown is unfortunately a natural part of ageing and we expect to see some sort of degeneration as we age, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it affect the quality of our lives. 

How to strengthen joints

Now that we’ve covered the types of joints in the body ,what they do and what issues you could find yourself having within your joints if taken for granted, what can we do to help?

Exercise for joints

Exercise is so important not only for our growth into adulthood, but it can also be a fantastic tool to facilitate healing. Exercise can help to strengthen our joints by working on both the skeletal and musculoskeletal system. When we do activity that involves loading, our muscles build strength. These muscles are situated at the joints and if they are stronger, this adds to the overall stability of the joint in question. 

Diet for joints

Having a balanced diet filled with the right vitamins and minerals can help to keep our joints healthy. Supplements like vitamin D can help our bones and joints stay healthy and, when combined with protein in our diet, can be helpful. Protein is essential in stimulating the repair of our soft tissues and keeping them healthy. It is also used as a source of energy which will help you to sustain the exercise that is required to build strength in your joints. Supplements like collagen are also fantastic for keeping our cartilage, bones and connective tissue healthy. 

In addition, turmeric is a great natural anti-inflammatory that helps your body cope with inflammation; used regularly, turmeric can be helpful at improving symptoms of depression and joint arthritis.

A balanced diet, supplements and exercise is a winning combination - the more you move the more synovial fluid your body will be encouraged to create!

Summary

To conclude, joints are complex and have many factors that enable them to function as they do. One key thing to take in about these amazing parts of our body is that structure is directly related to function. So, what that means is, if the structure of a joint changes (whether that be from trauma, age or even surgery) the function of that joint will change as well. After all, you can’t use your ankle straight after you injure it! But this also works the other way around. If you change how you use your joints, for example, through exercise or diet, you can have a direct, positive effect on their structure too. So have a look at how you can keep your joints healthy for longer and don’t take them for granted!

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