Synovial joints are the most common type of joint in the body (Figure 1). A key structural characteristic for a synovial joint that is not seen at fibrous or cartilaginous joints is the presence of a joint cavity. This fluid-filled space is the site at which the articulating surfaces of the bones contact each other. Also unlike fibrous or cartilaginous joints, the articulating bone surfaces at a synovial joint are not directly connected to each other with fibrous connective tissue or cartilage. This gives the bones of a synovial joint the ability to move smoothly against each other, allowing for increased joint mobility.
Structural Features of Synovial Joints
Synovial joints are characterized by the presence of a joint cavity. The walls of this space are formed by the articular capsule, a fibrous connective tissue structure that is attached to each bone just outside the area of the bone’s articulating surface. The bones of the joint articulate with each other within the joint cavity.
Friction between the bones at a synovial joint is prevented by the presence of the articular cartilage, a thin layer of hyaline cartilage that covers the entire articulating surface of each bone. However, unlike at a cartilaginous joint, the articular cartilages of each bone are not continuous with each other. Instead, the articular cartilage acts like a Teflon® coating over the bone surface, allowing the articulating bones to move smoothly against each other without damaging the underlying bone tissue. Lining the inner surface of the articular capsule is a thin synovial membrane. The cells of this membrane secrete synovial fluid (synovia = “a thick fluid”), a thick, slimy fluid that provides lubrication to further reduce friction between the bones of the joint. This fluid also provides nourishment to the articular cartilage, which does not contain blood vessels. The ability of the bones to move smoothly against each other within the joint cavity, and the freedom of joint movement this provides, means that each synovial joint is functionally classified as a diarthrosis.
Outside of their articulating surfaces, the bones are connected together by ligaments, which are strong bands of fibrous connective tissue. These strengthen and support the joint by anchoring the bones together and preventing their separation. Ligaments allow for normal movements at a joint, but limit the range of these motions, thus preventing excessive or abnormal joint movements. Ligaments are classified based on their relationship to the fibrous articular capsule. An extrinsic ligament is located outside of the articular capsule, an intrinsic ligament is fused to or incorporated into the wall of the articular capsule, and an intracapsular ligament is located inside of the articular capsule.
At many synovial joints, additional support is provided by the muscles and their tendons that act across the joint. A tendon is the dense connective tissue structure that attaches a muscle to bone. As forces acting on a joint increase, the body will automatically increase the overall strength of contraction of the muscles crossing that joint, thus allowing the muscle and its tendon to serve as a “dynamic ligament” to resist forces and support the joint. This type of indirect support by muscles is very important at the shoulder joint, for example, where the ligaments are relatively weak.
Additional Structures Associated with Synovial Joints
A few synovial joints of the body have a fibrocartilage structure located between the articulating bones. This is called an articular disc, which is generally small and oval-shaped, or a meniscus, which is larger and C-shaped. These structures can serve several functions, depending on the specific joint. In some places, an articular disc may act to strongly unite the bones of the joint to each other. Examples of this include the articular discs found at the sternoclavicular joint or between the distal ends of the radius and ulna bones. At other synovial joints, the disc can provide shock absorption and cushioning between the bones, which is the function of each meniscus within the knee joint. Finally, an articular disc can serve to smooth the movements between the articulating bones, as seen at the temporomandibular joint. Some synovial joints also have a fat pad, which can serve as a cushion between the bones.
Additional structures located outside of a synovial joint serve to prevent friction between the bones of the joint and the overlying muscle tendons or skin. A bursa (plural = bursae) is a thin connective tissue sac filled with lubricating liquid. They are located in regions where skin, ligaments, muscles, or muscle tendons can rub against each other, usually near a body joint (Figure 2). Bursae reduce friction by separating the adjacent structures, preventing them from rubbing directly against each other. Bursae are classified by their location. A subcutaneous bursa is located between the skin and an underlying bone. It allows skin to move smoothly over the bone. Examples include the prepatellar bursa located over the kneecap and the olecranon bursa at the tip of the elbow. A submuscular bursa is found between a muscle and an underlying bone, or between adjacent muscles. These prevent rubbing of the muscle during movements. A large submuscular bursa, the trochanteric bursa, is found at the lateral hip, between the greater trochanter of the femur and the overlying gluteus maximus muscle. A subtendinous bursa is found between a tendon and a bone. Examples include the subacromial bursa that protects the tendon of shoulder muscle as it passes under the acromion of the scapula, and the suprapatellar bursa that separates the tendon of the large anterior thigh muscle from the distal femur just above the knee.
A tendon sheath is similar in structure to a bursa, but smaller. It is a connective tissue sac that surrounds a muscle tendon at places where the tendon crosses a joint. It contains a lubricating fluid that allows for smooth motions of the tendon during muscle contraction and joint movements.
Types of Synovial Joints
Synovial joints are subdivided based on the shapes of the articulating surfaces of the bones that form each joint. The six types of synovial joints are pivot, hinge, condyloid, saddle, plane, and ball-and socket-joints (Figure 3).
At a pivot joint, a rounded portion of a bone is enclosed within a ring formed partially by the articulation with another bone and partially by a ligament (see Figure 3a). The bone rotates within this ring. Since the rotation is around a single axis, pivot joints are functionally classified as a uniaxial diarthrosis type of joint. An example of a pivot joint is the atlantoaxial joint, found between the C1 (atlas) and C2 (axis) vertebrae. Here, the upward projecting dens of the axis articulates with the inner aspect of the atlas, where it is held in place by a ligament. Rotation at this joint allows you to turn your head from side to side. A second pivot joint is found at the proximal radioulnar joint. Here, the head of the radius is largely encircled by a ligament that holds it in place as it articulates with the radial notch of the ulna. Rotation of the radius allows for forearm movements.
In a hinge joint, the convex end of one bone articulates with the concave end of the adjoining bone (see Figure 3b). This type of joint allows only for bending and straightening motions along a single axis, and thus hinge joints are functionally classified as uniaxial joints. A good example is the elbow joint, with the articulation between the trochlea of the humerus and the trochlear notch of the ulna. Other hinge joints of the body include the knee, ankle, and interphalangeal joints between the phalanx bones of the fingers and toes.
At a condyloid joint (ellipsoid joint), the shallow depression at the end of one bone articulates with a rounded structure from an adjacent bone or bones (see Figure 3e). The knuckle (metacarpophalangeal) joints of the hand between the distal end of a metacarpal bone and the proximal phalanx bone are condyloid joints. Another example is the radiocarpal joint of the wrist, between the shallow depression at the distal end of the radius bone and the rounded scaphoid, lunate, and triquetrum carpal bones. In this case, the articulation area has a more oval (elliptical) shape. Functionally, condyloid joints are biaxial joints that allow for two planes of movement. One movement involves the bending and straightening of the fingers or the anterior-posterior movements of the hand. The second movement is a side-to-side movement, which allows you to spread your fingers apart and bring them together, or to move your hand in a medial-going or lateral-going direction.
At a saddle joint, both of the articulating surfaces for the bones have a saddle shape, which is concave in one direction and convex in the other (see Figure 3c). This allows the two bones to fit together like a rider sitting on a saddle. Saddle joints are functionally classified as biaxial joints. The primary example is the first carpometacarpal joint, between the trapezium (a carpal bone) and the first metacarpal bone at the base of the thumb. This joint provides the thumb the ability to move away from the palm of the hand along two planes. Thus, the thumb can move within the same plane as the palm of the hand, or it can jut out anteriorly, perpendicular to the palm. This movement of the first carpometacarpal joint is what gives humans their distinctive “opposable” thumbs. The sternoclavicular joint is also classified as a saddle joint.
At a plane joint (gliding joint), the articulating surfaces of the bones are flat or slightly curved and of approximately the same size, which allows the bones to slide against each other (see Figure 3d). The motion at this type of joint is usually small and tightly constrained by surrounding ligaments. Based only on their shape, plane joints can allow multiple movements, including rotation. Thus plane joints can be functionally classified as a multiaxial joint. However, not all of these movements are available to every plane joint due to limitations placed on it by ligaments or neighboring bones. Thus, depending upon the specific joint of the body, a plane joint may exhibit only a single type of movement or several movements. Plane joints are found between the carpal bones (intercarpal joints) of the wrist or tarsal bones (intertarsal joints) of the foot, between the clavicle and acromion of the scapula (acromioclavicular joint), and between the superior and inferior articular processes of adjacent vertebrae (zygapophysial joints).
The joint with the greatest range of motion is the ball-and-socket joint. At these joints, the rounded head of one bone (the ball) fits into the concave articulation (the socket) of the adjacent bone (see Figure 3f). The hip joint and the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint are the only ball-and-socket joints of the body. At the hip joint, the head of the femur articulates with the acetabulum of the hip bone, and at the shoulder joint, the head of the humerus articulates with the glenoid cavity of the scapula.
Ball-and-socket joints are classified functionally as multiaxial joints. The femur and the humerus are able to move in both anterior-posterior and medial-lateral directions and they can also rotate around their long axis. The shallow socket formed by the glenoid cavity allows the shoulder joint an extensive range of motion. In contrast, the deep socket of the acetabulum and the strong supporting ligaments of the hip joint serve to constrain movements of the femur, reflecting the need for stability and weight-bearing ability at the hip.
Synovial joints are the most common type of joints in the body. They are characterized by the presence of a joint cavity, inside of which the bones of the joint articulate with each other. The articulating surfaces of the bones at a synovial joint are not directly connected to each other by connective tissue or cartilage, which allows the bones to move freely against each other. The walls of the joint cavity are formed by the articular capsule. Friction between the bones is reduced by a thin layer of articular cartilage covering the surfaces of the bones, and by a lubricating synovial fluid, which is secreted by the synovial membrane.
Synovial joints are strengthened by the presence of ligaments, which hold the bones together and resist excessive or abnormal movements of the joint. Ligaments are classified as extrinsic ligaments if they are located outside of the articular capsule, intrinsic ligaments if they are fused to the wall of the articular capsule, or intracapsular ligaments if they are located inside the articular capsule. Some synovial joints also have an articular disc (meniscus), which can provide padding between the bones, smooth their movements, or strongly join the bones together to strengthen the joint. Muscles and their tendons acting across a joint can also increase their contractile strength when needed, thus providing indirect support for the joint.
Bursae contain a lubricating fluid that serves to reduce friction between structures. Subcutaneous bursae prevent friction between the skin and an underlying bone, submuscular bursae protect muscles from rubbing against a bone or another muscle, and a subtendinous bursa prevents friction between bone and a muscle tendon. Tendon sheaths contain a lubricating fluid and surround tendons to allow for smooth movement of the tendon as it crosses a joint.
Based on the shape of the articulating bone surfaces and the types of movement allowed, synovial joints are classified into six types. At a pivot joint, one bone is held within a ring by a ligament and its articulation with a second bone. Pivot joints only allow for rotation around a single axis. These are found at the articulation between the C1 (atlas) and the dens of the C2 (axis) vertebrae, which provides the side-to-side rotation of the head, or at the proximal radioulnar joint between the head of the radius and the radial notch of the ulna, which allows for rotation of the radius during forearm movements. Hinge joints, such as at the elbow, knee, ankle, or interphalangeal joints between phalanx bones of the fingers and toes, allow only for bending and straightening of the joint. Pivot and hinge joints are functionally classified as uniaxial joints.
Condyloid joints are found where the shallow depression of one bone receives a rounded bony area formed by one or two bones. Condyloid joints are found at the base of the fingers (metacarpophalangeal joints) and at the wrist (radiocarpal joint). At a saddle joint, the articulating bones fit together like a rider and a saddle. An example is the first carpometacarpal joint located at the base of the thumb. Both condyloid and saddle joints are functionally classified as biaxial joints.
Plane joints are formed between the small, flattened surfaces of adjacent bones. These joints allow the bones to slide or rotate against each other, but the range of motion is usually slight and tightly limited by ligaments or surrounding bones. This type of joint is found between the articular processes of adjacent vertebrae, at the acromioclavicular joint, or at the intercarpal joints of the hand and intertarsal joints of the foot. Ball-and-socket joints, in which the rounded head of a bone fits into a large depression or socket, are found at the shoulder and hip joints. Both plane and ball-and-sockets joints are classified functionally as multiaxial joints. However, ball-and-socket joints allow for large movements, while the motions between bones at a plane joint are small.
- articular capsule
- connective tissue structure that encloses the joint cavity of a synovial joint
- articular cartilage
- thin layer of hyaline cartilage that covers the articulating surfaces of bones at a synovial joint
- articular disc
- meniscus; a fibrocartilage structure found between the bones of some synovial joints; provides padding or smooths movements between the bones; strongly unites the bones together
- ball-and-socket joint
- synovial joint formed between the spherical end of one bone (the ball) that fits into the depression of a second bone (the socket); found at the hip and shoulder joints; functionally classified as a multiaxial joint
- connective tissue sac containing lubricating fluid that prevents friction between adjacent structures, such as skin and bone, tendons and bone, or between muscles
- condyloid joint
- synovial joint in which the shallow depression at the end of one bone receives a rounded end from a second bone or a rounded structure formed by two bones; found at the metacarpophalangeal joints of the fingers or the radiocarpal joint of the wrist; functionally classified as a biaxial joint
- extrinsic ligament
- ligament located outside of the articular capsule of a synovial joint
- hinge joint
- synovial joint at which the convex surface of one bone articulates with the concave surface of a second bone; includes the elbow, knee, ankle, and interphalangeal joints; functionally classified as a uniaxial joint
- intracapsular ligament
- ligament that is located within the articular capsule of a synovial joint
- intrinsic ligament
- ligament that is fused to or incorporated into the wall of the articular capsule of a synovial joint
- articular disc
- pivot joint
- synovial joint at which the rounded portion of a bone rotates within a ring formed by a ligament and an articulating bone; functionally classified as uniaxial joint
- plane joint
- synovial joint formed between the flattened articulating surfaces of adjacent bones; functionally classified as a multiaxial joint
- proximal radioulnar joint
- articulation between head of radius and radial notch of ulna; uniaxial pivot joint that allows for rotation of radius during pronation/supination of forearm
- saddle joint
- synovial joint in which the articulating ends of both bones are convex and concave in shape, such as at the first carpometacarpal joint at the base of the thumb; functionally classified as a biaxial joint
- subcutaneous bursa
- bursa that prevents friction between skin and an underlying bone
- submuscular bursa
- bursa that prevents friction between bone and a muscle or between adjacent muscles
- subtendinous bursa
- bursa that prevents friction between bone and a muscle tendon
- synovial fluid
- thick, lubricating fluid that fills the interior of a synovial joint
- synovial membrane
- thin layer that lines the inner surface of the joint cavity at a synovial joint; produces the synovial fluid
- dense connective tissue structure that anchors a muscle to bone
- tendon sheath
- connective tissue that surrounds a tendon at places where the tendon crosses a joint; contains a lubricating fluid to prevent friction and allow smooth movements of the tendon.