If bones are the “steel frame” of the body and cartilage forms the “rubber shock absorbers” between your bones, what name do we give for all the nuts, bolts, stitches, pulleys, cords, housings, laces, bindings, springs and bungees that connect our parts together?
These tough, durable attachment structures are provided by the dense connective tissues of the body. Like connective tissues in general, these tissues have few living cells (here, fibroblasts, shown traveling among the fibers). But in contrast to other connective tissues, the word “dense” here refers to an especially high density of collagen fibers. Collagen fibers provide a strong “steel cable” that is difficult to tear apart, and thus is used to provide tension resistance in body tissues. Collagen is such an important structural component that it makes up 25% of body protein – your most abundant protein of all.
There are three types of dense connective tissue:
- In dense irregular connective tissue, the collagen fibers lie in all different directions. This type is useful in tissues that are subject to unpredictable forces. The deep part of your skin (dermis) is a good example – there’s no telling what part of your face your grandma is going to pinch, and in what direction! This type also forms a fibrous capsule around joints and various organs.
- In dense regular connective tissue, the collagen fibers are all lined up together, providing tremendous strength against tension, but only in one direction. It’s the tissue used in our tendons – cord-like structures that attach a muscle to a bone and allow the muscle to pull on the bone. It’s also used by ligaments – cord-like structures that attach one bone to another, and prevent the two bones from being ripped apart from each other.
- In elastic connective tissue, we also find a high density of collagen, but with an important difference. Large numbers of elastic fibers dominate the behavior of the tissue. The result is like an elastic band — you can stretch it, but when you let go, it recoils right back to its original shape. It’s an important component of arteries, allowing them to stretch when the blood pressure varies. It also allows your lungs to exhale without using any energy, saving energy in ventilation. There are also elastic ligaments in your neck that give your head a little bounce when you start to fall asleep in class — perhaps saving you from injury, while providing the rest of the class with an entertaining demonstration!