This picture shows a girl kayaking in the ocean.

Figure 9.1. Girl Kayaking
Without joints, body movements would be impossible. (credit: Graham Richardson/


Learning Objectives

  • Discuss both functional and structural classifications for body joints
  • Describe the characteristic features for fibrous, cartilaginous, and synovial joints and give examples of each
  • Define and identify the different body movements
  • Discuss the structure of specific body joints and the movements allowed by each
  • Explain the development of body joints

The adult human body has 206 bones, and with the exception of the hyoid bone in the neck, each bone is connected to at least one other bone. Joints are the location where bones come together. Many joints allow for movement between the bones. At these joints, the articulating surfaces of the adjacent bones can move smoothly against each other. However, the bones of other joints may be joined to each other by connective tissue or cartilage. These joints are designed for stability and provide for little or no movement. Importantly, joint stability and movement are related to each other. This means that stable joints allow for little or no mobility between the adjacent bones. Conversely, joints that provide the most movement between bones are the least stable. Understanding the relationship between joint structure and function will help to explain why particular types of joints are found in certain areas of the body.

The articulating surfaces of bones at stable types of joints, with little or no mobility, are strongly united to each other. For example, most of the joints of the skull are held together by fibrous connective tissue and do not allow for movement between the adjacent bones. This lack of mobility is important, because the skull bones serve to protect the brain. Similarly, other joints united by fibrous connective tissue allow for very little movement, which provides stability and weight-bearing support for the body. For example, the tibia and fibula of the leg are tightly united to give stability to the body when standing. At other joints, the bones are held together by cartilage, which permits limited movements between the bones. Thus, the joints of the vertebral column only allow for small movements between adjacent vertebrae, but when added together, these movements provide the flexibility that allows your body to twist, or bend to the front, back, or side. In contrast, at joints that allow for wide ranges of motion, the articulating surfaces of the bones are not directly united to each other. Instead, these surfaces are enclosed within a space filled with lubricating fluid, which allows the bones to move smoothly against each other. These joints provide greater mobility, but since the bones are free to move in relation to each other, the joint is less stable. Most of the joints between the bones of the appendicular skeleton are this freely moveable type of joint. These joints allow the muscles of the body to pull on a bone and thereby produce movement of that body region. Your ability to kick a soccer ball, pick up a fork, and dance the tango depend on mobility at these types of joints.

Classification of Joints

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between the functional and structural classifications for joints
  • Describe the three functional types of joints and give an example of each
  • List the three types of diarthrodial joints

A  joint, also called an articulation, is any place where adjacent bones or bone and cartilage come together (articulate with each other) to form a connection. Joints are classified both structurally and functionally. Structural classifications of joints take into account whether the adjacent bones are strongly anchored to each other by fibrous connective tissue or cartilage, or whether the adjacent bones articulate with each other within a fluid-filled space called a joint cavity. Functional classifications describe the degree of movement available between the bones, ranging from immobile, to slightly mobile, to freely moveable joints. The amount of movement available at a particular joint of the body is related to the functional requirements for that joint. Thus immobile or slightly moveable joints serve to protect internal organs, give stability to the body, and allow for limited body movement. In contrast, freely moveable joints allow for much more extensive movements of the body and limbs.

Structural Classification of Joints

The structural classification of joints is based on whether the articulating surfaces of the adjacent bones are directly connected by fibrous connective tissue or cartilage, or whether the articulating surfaces contact each other within a fluid-filled joint cavity. These differences serve to divide the joints of the body into three structural classifications. A fibrous joint is where the adjacent bones are united by fibrous connective tissue. At a cartilaginous joint, the bones are joined by hyaline cartilage or fibrocartilage. At a synovial joint, the articulating surfaces of the bones are not directly connected, but instead come into contact with each other within a joint cavity that is filled with a lubricating fluid. Synovial joints allow for free movement between the bones and are the most common joints of the body.

Functional Classification of Joints

The functional classification of joints is determined by the amount of mobility found between the adjacent bones. Joints are thus functionally classified as a synarthrosis or immobile joint, an amphiarthrosis or slightly moveable joint, or as a diarthrosis, which is a freely moveable joint (arthroun = “to fasten by a joint”). Depending on their location, fibrous joints may be functionally classified as a synarthrosis (immobile joint) or an amphiarthrosis (slightly mobile joint). Cartilaginous joints are also functionally classified as either a synarthrosis or an amphiarthrosis joint. All synovial joints are functionally classified as a diarthrosis joint.


An immobile or nearly immobile joint is called a synarthrosis. The immobile nature of these joints provide for a strong union between the articulating bones. This is important at locations where the bones provide protection for internal organs. Examples include sutures, the fibrous joints between the bones of the skull that surround and protect the brain (Figure 9.2), and the manubriosternal joint, the cartilaginous joint that unites the manubrium and body of the sternum for protection of the heart.

This image shows the lateral view of the human skeleton. The lambdoid, coronal, and squamous sutures are labeled.
Figure 9.2. Suture Joints of Skull
The suture joints of the skull are an example of a synarthrosis, an immobile or essentially immobile joint.


An amphiarthrosis is a joint that has limited mobility. An example of this type of joint is the cartilaginous joint that unites the bodies of adjacent vertebrae. Filling the gap between the vertebrae is a thick pad of fibrocartilage called an intervertebral disc (Figure 9.3). Each intervertebral disc strongly unites the vertebrae but still allows for a limited amount of movement between them. However, the small movements available between adjacent vertebrae can sum together along the length of the vertebral column to provide for large ranges of body movements.

Another example of an amphiarthrosis is the pubic symphysis of the pelvis. This is a cartilaginous joint in which the pubic regions of the right and left hip bones are strongly anchored to each other by fibrocartilage. This joint normally has very little mobility. The strength of the pubic symphysis is important in conferring weight-bearing stability to the pelvis.

This image shows the lateral view of the intervertebral disc located between two vertebral discs.
Figure 9.3. Intervertebral Disc
An intervertebral disc unites the bodies of adjacent vertebrae within the vertebral column. Each disc allows for limited movement between the vertebrae and thus functionally forms an amphiarthrosis type of joint. Intervertebral discs are made of fibrocartilage and thereby structurally form a symphysis type of cartilaginous joint.


A freely mobile joint is classified as a diarthrosis. These types of joints include all synovial joints of the body, which provide the majority of body movements. Most diarthrotic joints are found in the appendicular skeleton and thus give the limbs a wide range of motion. These joints are divided into three categories, based on the number of axes of motion provided by each. An axis in anatomy is described as the movements in reference to the three anatomical planes: transverse, frontal, and sagittal. Thus, diarthroses are classified as uniaxial (for movement in one plane), biaxial (for movement in two planes), or multiaxial joints (for movement in all three anatomical planes).

uniaxial joint only allows for a motion in a single plane (around a single axis). The elbow joint, which only allows for bending or straightening, is an example of a uniaxial joint. A biaxial joint allows for motions within two planes. An example of a biaxial joint is a metacarpophalangeal joint (knuckle joint) of the hand. The joint allows for movement along one axis to produce bending or straightening of the finger, and movement along a second axis, which allows for spreading of the fingers away from each other and bringing them together. A joint that allows for the several directions of movement is called a multiaxial joint (polyaxial or triaxial joint). This type of diarthrotic joint allows for movement along three axes (Figure 9.4). The shoulder and hip joints are multiaxial joints. They allow the upper or lower limb to move in an anterior-posterior direction and a medial-lateral direction. In addition, the limb can also be rotated around its long axis. This third movement results in rotation of the limb so that its anterior surface is moved either toward or away from the midline of the body.

This image shows a multiaxial joint. The left panel shows the acetabulum of the hip bone and the head of the femur. The right panel shows a simplified ball-and-socket joint structure to illustrate the movement of the hip joint.
Figure 9.4. Multiaxial Joint
A multiaxial joint, such as the hip joint, allows for three types of movement: anterior-posterior, medial-lateral, and rotational.