Articular cartilage swells when its collagen network is degraded, both in osteoarthritis (OA) and following mechanical trauma. However, most of the experimental evidence actually shows that it is small excised samples of cartilage that swell, implying that the cartilage was not greatly swollen in-situ before it was excised. We hypothesise that degraded cartilage can be prevented from swelling in-situ by restraint from adjacent normal cartilage and subchondral bone. Four adjacent osteochondral specimens, 20 x 20 mm, were obtained from regions of the humeral heads of each of 11 skeletally-mature cows. The central region of each specimen was injured by compressive loading using a 9 mm-diameter flat metal indenter, and cartilage surface damage was confirmed using Indian ink. Damaged cartilage was allowed to swell in physiological saline for 1 h under one of four conditions of restraint: (A) normal in-situ restraint from subchondral bone and surrounding cartilage, (B) restraint from bone only, (C) restraint from cartilage only, (D) no restraint (excised specimen). Cartilage hydration was assessed by freeze-drying to constant weight. Proteoglycan loss from damaged cartilage was quantified by analyzing the GAG content of the surrounding bath using the DMB assay. Hydration of damaged cartilage after swelling depended on restraint (p <0.001), averaging: (A) 76.8%, (B) 78.2%, (C) 78.0%, (D) 81.3%. GAG loss following cartilage surface damage was insufficient to explain observed differences in hydration. The 6% increase in hydration between (A) and (D) can be attributed to swelling which is prohibited when the cartilage remains in-situ. Swelling of degraded cartilage can be largely prevented if it remains in-situ, supported by adjacent healthy bone and cartilage. Adverse physico-chemical consequences of cartilage degradation and swelling may become apparent only when this support is diminished, either because the affected region is large, or following deterioration of adjacent bone or cartilage.
Summers, GC., Merrill, A., Sharif, M., & Adams, MA. (2008). Swelling of articular cartilage depends on the integrity of adjacent cartilage and bone. Biorheology, 45(3-4), 365 - 374. https://doi.org/10.3233/BIR-2008-0495