Joints and Skeletal Movements

The point at which two or more bones meet is called a joint, or articulation. Joints are responsible for movement, such as the movement of limbs, and stability, such as the stability found in the bones of the skull. There are two ways to classify joints: based on their structure or based on their function. The structural classification divides joints into fibrous, cartilaginous, and synovial joints depending on the material composing the joint and the presence or absence of a cavity in the joint.

The bones of fibrous joints are held together by fibrous connective tissue. There is no cavity, or space, present between the bones, so most fibrous joints do not move at all, or are only capable of minor movements. The joints between the bones in the skull and between the teeth and the bone of their sockets are examples of fibrous joints.

Cartilaginous joints are joints in which the bones are connected by cartilage. An example is found at the joints between vertebrae, the so-called “disks” of the backbone. Cartilaginous joints allow for very little movement.

Synovial joints are the only joints that have a space between the adjoining bones. This space is referred to as the joint cavity and is filled with fluid. The fluid lubricates the joint, reducing friction between the bones and allowing for greater movement. The ends of the bones are covered with cartilage and the entire joint is surrounded by a capsule. Synovial joints are capable of the greatest movement of the joint types. Knees, elbows, and shoulders are examples of synovial joints.

Illustration A shows sutures that knit the back part of the skull together with the front and lower parts. Illustration B shows 2 vertebrae with a cartilaginous disc between, holding the 2 vertebrae firmly together. Illustration C shows a synovial joint between two bones. An I-beam–shaped synovial cavity exists between the bones, and articular cartilage wraps around the tips of the bones. Ligaments connect the two bones together.
Figure (a) Sutures are fibrous joints found only in the skull. (b) Cartilaginous joints are bones connected by cartilage, such as between vertebrae. (c) Synovial joints are the only joints that have a space or “synovial cavity” in the joint.

Types of Synovial Joints

Synovial joints are further classified into six different categories on the basis of the shape and structure of the joint. The shape of the joint affects the type of movement permitted by the joint (Figure 2). These joints can be described as planar, hinge, pivot, condyloid, saddle, or ball-and-socket joints.

 Illustration shows joints of the body. The neck is a pivot joint that allows rotation. The hip is a ball-and-socket joint that allows a swiveling movement. The elbow is a hinge joint that allows movement in one direction. The wrist has a saddle joint to allow back-and forth-movement, and a condyloid joint to allow up-and-down movement. The tarsals of the foot have a plane joint that allows back-and-forth movement.

Figure 2: Different types of joints allow different types of movement. Planar, hinge, pivot, condyloid, saddle, and ball-and-socket are all types of synovial joints.

Photo shows a human hand skeleton. The radius and ulna of the forearm connect to several small, knobby bones in the wrist called carpals. Carpals, in turn, connect to bones in the wrist.

Figure 3. The joints of the carpal bones in the wrist are examples of planar joints. (credit: modification of work by Brian C. Goss)



  • Planar joints have bones with articulating surfaces that are flat or slightly curved faces. These joints allow for gliding movements, and so the joints are sometimes referred to as gliding joints. The range of motion is limited in these joints and does not involve rotation. Planar joints are found in the carpal bones in the hand and the tarsal bones of the foot, as well as between vertebrae (Figure 3).

Photo shows the skeleton of a human arm. The ulna of the lower arm fits in the groove of the humerus, forming the hinge-like elbow joint.

Figure 4. The elbow joint, where the radius articulates with the humerus, is an example of a hinge joint. (credit: modification of work by Brian C. Goss)



  • Hinge Joints: In hinge joints, the slightly rounded end of one bone fits into the slightly hollow end of the other bone. In this way, one bone moves while the other remains stationary, like the hinge of a door. The elbow is an example of a hinge joint. The knee is sometimes classified as a modified hinge joint (Figure 4).
Illustration shows a human skull twisting back and forth on the neck in a pivot-like motion.

Figure 5 The joint in the neck that allows the head to move back and forth is an example of a pivot joint.



  • Pivot joints:  consist of the rounded end of one bone fitting into a ring formed by the other bone. This structure allows rotational movement, as the rounded bone moves around its own axis. An example of a pivot joint is the joint of the first and second vertebrae of the neck that allows the head to move back and forth (Figure 5). The joint of the wrist that allows the palm of the hand to be turned up and down is also a pivot joint.

  • Condyloid joints consist of an oval-shaped end of one bone fitting into a similarly oval-shaped hollow of another bone. This is also sometimes called an ellipsoidal joint. This type of joint allows angular movement along two axes, as seen in the joints of the wrist and fingers, which can move both side to side and up and down.
  • Saddle joints are so named because the ends of each bone resemble a saddle, with concave and convex portions that fit together. Saddle joints allow angular movements similar to condyloid joints but with a greater range of motion. An example of a saddle joint is the thumb joint, which can move back and forth and up and down, but more freely than the wrist or fingers.
Illustration shows that the ball-shaped end of the humerus fits into the socket in the shoulder joint.

Figure 6:The shoulder joint is an example of a ball-and-socket joint.Movement at Synovial Joints


  • Ball-and-socket joints possess a rounded, ball-like end of one bone fitting into a cuplike socket of another bone. This organization allows the greatest range of motion, as all movement types are possible in all directions. Examples of ball-and-socket joints are the shoulder and hip joints (Figure 6).

The wide range of movement allowed by synovial joints produces different types of movements. The movement of synovial joints can be classified as one of four different types: gliding, angular, rotational, or special movement.





Arthritis is a common disorder of synovial joints that involves inflammation of the joint. This often results in significant joint pain, along with swelling, stiffness, and reduced joint mobility. There are more than 100 different forms of arthritis. Arthritis may arise from aging, damage to the articular cartilage, autoimmune diseases, bacterial or viral infections, or unknown (probably genetic) causes.

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which is associated with aging and “wear and tear” of the articular cartilage. Risk factors that may lead to osteoarthritis later in life include injury to a joint; jobs that involve physical labor; sports with running, twisting, or throwing actions; and being overweight. These factors put stress on the articular cartilage that covers the surfaces of bones at synovial joints, causing the cartilage to gradually become thinner. As the articular cartilage layer wears down, more pressure is placed on the bones. The joint responds by increasing production of the lubricating synovial fluid, but this can lead to swelling of the joint cavity, causing pain and joint stiffness as the articular capsule is stretched. The bone tissue underlying the damaged articular cartilage also responds by thickening, producing irregularities and causing the articulating surface of the bone to become rough or bumpy. Joint movement then results in pain and inflammation. In its early stages, symptoms of osteoarthritis may be reduced by mild activity that “warms up” the joint, but the symptoms may worsen following exercise. In individuals with more advanced osteoarthritis, the affected joints can become more painful and therefore are difficult to use effectively, resulting in increased immobility. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but several treatments can help alleviate the pain. Treatments may include lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and low-impact exercise, and over-the-counter or prescription medications that help to alleviate the pain and inflammation. For severe cases, joint replacement surgery (arthroplasty) may be required.

Joint replacement is a very invasive procedure, so other treatments are always tried before surgery. However arthroplasty can provide relief from chronic pain and can enhance mobility within a few months following the surgery. This type of surgery involves replacing the articular surfaces of the bones with prosthesis (artificial components). For example, in hip arthroplasty, the worn or damaged parts of the hip joint, including the head and neck of the femur and the acetabulum of the pelvis, are removed and replaced with artificial joint components. The replacement head for the femur consists of a rounded ball attached to the end of a shaft that is inserted inside the diaphysis of the femur. The acetabulum of the pelvis is reshaped and a replacement socket is fitted into its place. The parts, which are always built in advance of the surgery, are sometimes custom made to produce the best possible fit for a patient.

Gout is a form of arthritis that results from the deposition of uric acid crystals within a body joint. Usually only one or a few joints are affected, such as the big toe, knee, or ankle. The attack may only last a few days, but may return to the same or another joint. Gout occurs when the body makes too much uric acid or the kidneys do not properly excrete it. A diet with excessive fructose has been implicated in raising the chances of a susceptible individual developing gout.

Other forms of arthritis are associated with various autoimmune diseases, bacterial infections of the joint, or unknown genetic causes. Autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, or systemic lupus erythematosus, produce arthritis because the immune system of the body attacks the body joints. In rheumatoid arthritis, the joint capsule and synovial membrane become inflamed. As the disease progresses, the articular cartilage is severely damaged or destroyed, resulting in joint deformation, loss of movement, and severe disability. The most commonly involved joints are the hands, feet, and cervical spine, with corresponding joints on both sides of the body usually affected, though not always to the same extent. Rheumatoid arthritis is also associated with lung fibrosis, vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels), coronary heart disease, and premature mortality. With no known cure, treatments are aimed at alleviating symptoms. Exercise, anti-inflammatory and pain medications, various specific disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, or surgery are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

The top panel in this figure shows a normal hip joint, and the bottom panel shows a hip joint with osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis of a synovial joint results from aging or prolonged joint wear and tear. These cause erosion and loss of the articular cartilage covering the surfaces of the bones, resulting in inflammation that causes joint stiffness and pain.