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J Anat. Nov 1998; 193(Pt 4): 481–494.
PMCID: PMC1467873

Fibrocartilage in tendons and ligaments — an adaptation to compressive load

Abstract

Where tendons and ligaments are subject to compression, they are frequently fibrocartilaginous. This occurs at 2 principal sites: where tendons (and sometimes ligaments) wrap around bony or fibrous pulleys, and in the region where they attach to bone, i.e. at their entheses. Wrap-around tendons are most characteristic of the limbs and are commonly wider at their point of bony contact so that the pressure is reduced. The most fibrocartilaginous tendons are heavily loaded and permanently bent around their pulleys. There is often pronounced interweaving of collagen fibres that prevents the tendons from splaying apart under compression. The fibrocartilage can be located within fascicles, or in endo- or epitenon (where it may protect blood vessels from compression or allow fascicles to slide). Fibrocartilage cells are commonly packed with intermediate filaments which could be involved in transducing mechanical load. The ECM often contains aggrecan which allows the tendon to imbibe water and withstand compression. Type II collagen may also be present, particularly in tendons that are heavily loaded. Fibrocartilage is a dynamic tissue that disappears when the tendons are rerouted surgically and can be maintained in vitro when discs of tendon are compressed. Finite element analyses provide a good correlation between its distribution and levels of compressive stress, but at some locations fibrocartilage is a sign of pathology. Enthesis fibrocartilage is most typical of tendons or ligaments that attach to the epiphyses of long bones where it may also be accompanied by sesamoid and periosteal fibrocartilages. It is characteristic of sites where the angle of attachment changes throughout the range of joint movement and it reduces wear and tear by dissipating stress concentration at the bony interface. There is a good correlation between the distribution of fibrocartilage within an enthesis and the levels of compressive stress. The complex interlocking between calcified fibrocartilage and bone contributes to the mechanical strength of the enthesis and cartilage-like molecules (e.g. aggrecan and type II collagen) in the ECM contribute to its ability to withstand compression. Pathological changes are common and are known as enthesopathies.

Keywords: Enthesis, extracellular matrix, aggrecan, type II collagen

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Selected References

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