Every time you sprint through the halls because you're late for class, score against your opponents during a game, or shoot pool with friends, you're using your bones, muscles, and joints. Without these important body parts, you'd be seriously sidelined — you'd be unable to sit, stand, walk, or do any of the activities you do every day.
From our head to our toes, our bones provide support for our bodies and help form our shape. The skull protects the brain and forms the shape of our face. The spinal cord, a pathway for messages between the brain and the body, is protected by the backbone, or spinal column. The ribs form a cage that shelters the heart, lungs, liver, and spleen, and the pelvis helps protect the bladder, intestines, and in girls, the reproductive organs. Although they're very light, bones are strong enough to support our entire weight.
Joints are where two bones meet. They make the skeleton flexible — without them, movement would be impossible. Muscles are also necessary for movement: They're the masses of tough, elastic tissue that pull our bones when we move.
Together, our bones, muscles, and joints — along with tendons, ligaments, and cartilage — form our musculoskeletal system and enable us to do everyday physical activities.
The human skeleton has 206 bones. Our bones begin to develop before birth. When the skeleton first forms, it is made of flexible cartilage, but within a few weeks it begins the process of ossification (pronounced: ah-suh-fuh-KAY-shun). Ossification is when the cartilage is replaced by hard deposits of calcium phosphate and stretchy collagen, the two main components of bone. It takes about 20 years for this process to be completed.
The bones of kids and young teens are smaller than those of adults and contain "growing zones" called growth plates. These plates consist of columns of multiplying cartilage cells that grow in length, and then change into hard, mineralized bone. These growth plates are easy to spot on an X-ray. Because girls mature at an earlier age than boys, their growth plates change into hard bone at an earlier age.
Bone building continues throughout your life, as your body constantly renews and reshapes the bones' living tissue. Bone contains three types of cells: osteoblasts (pronounced: AHS-tee-uh-blastz), which make new bone and help repair damage; osteocytes (pronounced: AHS-tee-o-sites), which are mature bone cells that help form the new bone; and osteoclasts (pronounced: AHS-tee-o-klasts), which break down bone and help to sculpt and shape it. Osteoclasts are very active in kids and teens, working on bone as it is remodeled during growth. They also play an important role in the repair of fractures.
Bones are made up of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and other minerals, as well as the protein collagen. Calcium is needed to make bones hard, which allows them to support your weight. Bones also store calcium and release some into the bloodstream when it's needed by other parts of the body. The amounts of certain vitamins and minerals that you eat, especially vitamin D and calcium, directly affect how much calcium is stored in the bones.
The soft bone marrow inside many of our bones is where most of the blood cells flowing through our bodies are made. The bone marrow contains stem cells, which produce the body's red blood cells and platelets, and some types of white blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body's tissues, and platelets help with blood clotting when someone has a cut or wound. White blood cells help the body fight infection.
Bones are made up of two types of material — compact bone and cancellous bone. Compact bone is the solid, hard outside part of the bone. This type of bone makes up most of the human skeleton. It looks like ivory and is extremely strong. Holes and channels run through it, carrying blood vessels and nerves from the periosteum, the bone's outer membrane. Cancellous (pronounced: KAN-suh-lus) bone, which looks like a sponge, is inside the compact bone. It is made up of a mesh-like network of tiny pieces of bone called trabeculae (pronounced: truh-BEH-kyoo-lee). This is where red and white blood cells are formed in the marrow.
Bones are fastened to other bones by long, fibrous straps called ligaments (pronounced: LIG-uh-mentz). Cartilage (pronounced: KAR-tul-ij), a flexible, rubbery substance in our joints, supports bones and protects them where they rub against each other.
Bones don't work alone — they need help from the muscles and joints. Muscles pull on the joints, allowing us to move. They also help the body perform other functions so we can grow and remain strong, such as chewing food and then moving it through the digestive system.
The human body has more than 600 muscles. Muscles make up half of a person's body weight. They are connected to bones by tough, cord-like tissues called tendons, which allow the muscles to pull on bones. If you wiggle your fingers, you can see the tendons on the back of your hand move as they do their work.
Humans have three different kinds of muscle:
Even when you sit perfectly still, there are muscles throughout your body that are constantly moving. Muscles enable your heart to beat, your chest to rise and fall as you breathe, and your blood vessels to help regulate the pressure and flow of blood through your body. When we smile and talk, muscles are helping us communicate, and when we exercise, they help us stay physically fit and healthy.
The movements your muscles make are coordinated and controlled by the brain and nervous system. The involuntary muscles are controlled by structures deep within the brain and the upper part of the spinal cord called the brain stem. The voluntary muscles are regulated by the parts of the brain known as the cerebral motor cortex and the cerebellum.
When you decide to move, the motor cortex sends an electrical signal through the spinal cord and peripheral nerves to the muscles, causing them to contract. The motor cortex on the right side of the brain controls the muscles on the left side of the body and vice versa.
The cerebellum (pronounced: ser-uh-BEL-um) coordinates the muscle movements ordered by the motor cortex. Sensors in the muscles and joints send messages back through peripheral nerves to tell the cerebellum and other parts of the brain where and how the arm or leg is moving and what position it's in. This feedback results in smooth, coordinated motion. If you want to lift your arm, your brain sends a message to the muscles in your arm and you move it. When you run, the messages to the brain are more involved, because many muscles have to work in rhythm.
Muscles move body parts by contracting and then relaxing. Your muscles can pull bones, but they can't push them back to their original position. So they work in pairs of flexors and extensors. The flexor contracts to bend a limb at a joint. Then, when you've completed the movement, the flexor relaxes and the extensor contracts to extend or straighten the limb at the same joint:
Joints allow our bodies to move in many ways. Some joints open and close like a hinge (such as knees and elbows), whereas others allow for more complicated movement — a shoulder or hip joint, for example, allows for backward, forward, sideways, and rotating movement.
Joints are classified by their range of movement. Immovable, or fibrous, joints don't move. The dome of the skull, for example, is made of bony plates, which must be immovable to protect the brain. Between the edges of these plates are links, or joints, of fibrous tissue. Fibrous joints also hold the teeth in the jawbone.
Partially movable, or cartilaginous (pronounced: kar-tuh-LAH-juh-nus), joints move a little. They are linked by cartilage, as in the spine. Each of the vertebrae in the spine moves in relation to the one above and below it, and together these movements give the spine its flexibility.
Freely movable, or synovial (pronounced: sih-NO-vee-ul), joints move in many directions. The main joints of the body — found at the hip, shoulders, elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles — are freely movable. They are filled with synovial fluid, which acts as a lubricant to help the joints move easily. There are three kinds of freely movable joints that play a big part in voluntary movement:
As strong as bones are, they can break. Muscles can weaken, and joints (as well as tendons, ligaments, and cartilage) can be damaged by injury or disease. The following are problems that can affect the bones, muscles, and joints in teens:
Arthritis. Arthritis is the inflammation of a joint, and people who have it experience swelling, warmth, pain, and often have trouble moving. Although we often think of arthritis as a condition that affects only older people, arthritis also can affect children and teens. Health problems that involve arthritis in kids and teens include juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA, also know as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, or JRA), lupus, Lyme disease, and septic arthritis (a bacterial infection of a joint).
Fracture. A fracture is when a bone breaks; it may crack, snap, or shatter. After a bone fracture, new bone cells fill the gap and repair the break. Applying a strong plaster cast, which keeps the bone in the correct position until it heals, is the usual treatment. If the fracture is complicated, metal pins and plates can be placed to better stabilize the fracture while the bone heals.
Muscular dystrophy. Muscular dystrophy (pronounced: DIS-truh-fee) is an inherited group of diseases that affect the muscles, causing them to weaken and break down over time. The most common form in childhood is called Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and it most often affects boys.
Osgood-Schlatter disease (OSD). Osgood-Schlatter disease is an inflammation (pain and swelling) of the bone, cartilage, and/or tendon at the top of the shinbone, where the tendon from the kneecap attaches. OSD usually strikes active teens around the beginning of their growth spurts, the approximately 2-year period during which they grow most rapidly.
Osteomyelitis. Osteomyelitis (pronounced: os-tee-oh-my-uh-LIE-tus) is a bone infection that is often caused by Staphylococcus aureus (pronounced: sta-fuh-low-KAH-kus ARE-ee-us) bacteria, though other types of bacteria can cause it, too. In kids and teens, osteomyelitis usually affects the long bones of the arms and legs. Osteomyelitis often develops after an injury or trauma.
Osteoporosis. In osteoporosis (pronounced: ahs-tee-o-puh-ROW-sus), bone tissue becomes brittle, thin, and spongy. Bones break easily, and the spine sometimes begins to crumble and collapse. Although the condition usually affects older people, girls with female athlete triad syndrome and teens with eating disorders can get the condition. Exercising regularly and getting plenty of calcium when you're a kid and teen can prevent or delay you from getting osteoporosis later in life.
Repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). RSIs are a group of injuries that happen when too much stress is placed on a part of the body, resulting in inflammation (pain and swelling), muscle strain, or tissue damage. This stress generally is from repeating the same movements over and over again. Playing sports like tennis that involve repetitive motions can also lead to RSIs. Kids and teens who spend a lot of time playing musical instruments or video games are also at risk for RSIs. RSIs are becoming more common in kids and teens because they spend more time than ever using computers.
Scoliosis. Every person's spine curves a little bit; a certain amount of curvature is necessary for people to move and walk properly. But three to five people out of 1,000 have a condition called scoliosis (pronounced: sko-lee-OH-sus), which causes the spine to curve too much. The condition can be hereditary, so a person who has scoliosis often has family members who have it.
Strains and sprains. Strains happen when a muscle or tendon is overstretched. Sprains are an overstretching or a partial tear of the ligaments. Strains usually happen when a person takes part in a strenuous activity when the muscles haven't properly warmed up or the muscle is not used to the activity (such as a new sport or playing a familiar sport after a long break). Sprains, on the other hand, are usually the result of an injury, such as twisting an ankle or knee. Both strains and sprains are common in teens because they're active and still growing.
Tendonitis. Tendonitis (pronounced: ten-duh-NY-tus) is a common sports injury that usually happens after overusing a muscle. The tendon and tendon sheath become inflamed, which can be painful. Resting the muscles and taking anti-inflammatory medication can help to relieve this condition.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2015
|Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) The MDA offers news and information about neuromuscular diseases, MDA research, and services for adults and children with neuromuscular diseases and their families. Call: (800) 572-1717|
|American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) The AAOS provides information for the public on sports safety, and bone, joint, muscle, ligament and tendon injuries or conditions.|
|Scoliosis Research Society The Scoliosis Research Society's site provides patients and their parents with a better understanding of scoliosis and its diagnosis and management.|
|National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases This Web site provides the latest information about the treatment and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases.|
|Arthritis Foundation The mission of this group is to support research to find the cure for and prevention of arthritis and to improve the quality of life for those affected by arthritis.|
|Lupus Foundation of America The mission of the Lupus Foundation of America is to educate and support those affected by lupus and find a cure. Call (800) 558-0121 for information.|
|Milk Matters: Calcium Education from the National Institutes of Health Milk Matters is a public health education campaign launched by the National Institutes of Health to promote calcium consumption among tweens and teens, especially during the ages of 11 to 15, a time of critical bone growth.|
|Jumper's Knee Jumper's knee is an inflammation or injury of the patellar tendon. Although it can seem minor, it's actually a serious condition that can get worse over time and ultimately require surgery if not treated.|
|Aspiration and Biopsy: Bone Marrow A bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are performed to examine bone marrow, the spongy liquid part of the bone where blood cells are made.|
|Knee Injuries Healthy knees are needed for many activities and sports and getting hurt can mean some time sitting on the sidelines.|
|Repetitive Stress Injuries Repetitive stress injuries happen when too much stress is placed on a part of the body, causing problems like swelling, pain, muscle strain, and tissue damage.|
|Stress Fractures It's not always easy to tell if you have a stress fracture, and stress fractures can get worse quickly. This article explains how to prevent and treat them.|
|Mouth and Teeth Did you know that your mouth is the first step in the body's digestive process? Or that the mouth and teeth are essential for speech? Learn about the many roles your mouth and teeth play.|
|Digestive System Most people think digestion begins when you first put food in your mouth. But the digestive process actually starts even before the food hits your taste buds.|
|Achilles Tendonitis If the tendon just above your heel becomes swollen or irritated due to overuse, it can lead to a painful condition called Achilles tendonitis. Find out how to treat it - and prevent it.|
|Calcium Your parents were right to make you drink milk when you were little. It's loaded with calcium, a mineral vital for building strong bones and teeth.|
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