Joint in anatomy is a structure that separates two or more adjacent elements of the skeletal system. Depending on the type of joint, such separated elements may or may not move on one another. This article discusses the joints of the human body—particularly their structure but also their ligaments, nerve and blood supply, and nutrition. Although the discussion focuses on human joints, its content is applicable to joints of vertebrates in general and mammals in particular. For information about the disorders and injuries that commonly affect human joints, see joint disease.
If an intervertebral disk were the only joint between a pair of vertebrae, then one of these could move on the other in any direction; but each pair of vertebrae with an intervertebral disk also has a pair of synovial joints, one on each side of the vertebral (neural) arch. These joints limit the kinds of independent movement possible, so that the thoracic vertebrae move in only two directions and the lumbar in only three; only the cervical vertebrae below the atlas have full freedom of movement.
The surface of articular cartilage is smooth to the finger, like that of a billiard ball. Images obtained by a scanning electron microscope have shown, however, that the surface is actually irregular, more like that of a golf ball. The part of the cartilage nearest to the bone is impregnated with calcium salts. This calcified layer appears to be a barrier to the passage of oxygen and nutrients to the cartilage from the bone, such that the cartilage is largely dependent upon the synovial fluid for its nourishment.
Articular surfaces are divisible into two primary classes: ovoid and sellar. An ovoid surface is either convex in all directions or concave in all directions; in this respect it is like one or other of the two sides of a piece of eggshell, hence the name (ovum, egg). A sellar surface is convex in one direction and concave in the direction at right angles to the first; in this respect it is like the whole or part of a horse saddle (sella, saddle). There are no flat articular surfaces, although slightly curved ovoid or sellar surfaces may be classified as flat. Following an engineering convention, an ovoid surface is called "male" if it is convex, "female" if it is concave. In any diarthrosis having ovoid conarticular surfaces, the male surface is always of larger area than the female. For this reason the larger of two sellar conarticular surfaces is called male and the smaller female. The larger the difference in size between conarticular surfaces, the greater the possible amount of motion at the joint.
The synovial fluid: The main features of synovial fluid are: (1) Chemically, it is a dialyzate (a material subjected to dialysis) of blood plasma—that is, the portion of the plasma that has filtered through a membrane—but it contains a larger amount of hyaluronic acid than other plasma dialyzates. (2) Physically, it is a markedly thixotropic fluid—that is, one that is both viscous and elastic. Its viscosity decreases with an increase in the speed of the fluid when it is in motion. Its elasticity, on the other hand, increases with an increase in the speed of the fluid. Its thixotropy is due to the hyaluronic acid in it. (3) Functionally, it has two parts to play: nutrition and lubrication. It has been established that synovial fluid alone, by virtue of its being a blood-plasma dialyzate, can nourish the articulating parts of the articular cartilages. Its thixotropic properties make it suitable for forming what are called elastohydrodynamic lubricant films between the moving and the fixed conarticular surfaces of any mating pair. The motion of the synovial fluid, referred to earlier in connection with the fatty pads, assists its nutritional function by distributing it over the articular surfaces, from which it slowly passes into the interior of the cartilage. The source of the hyaluronic acid is the synovial lining cells.
There are two types of these sets: capsular and noncapsular. Capsular ligaments are simply thickenings of the fibrous capsule itself that take the form of either elongated bands or triangles, the fibres of which radiate from a small area of one articulating bone to a line upon its mating fellow. The iliofemoral ligament of the hip joint is an example of a triangular ligament. Capsular ligaments are found on the outer surface of the capsule. There is one exception to this rule: ligaments of the shoulder joint (glenohumeral ligaments) are found on the inner surface.