An analytical model of two elastic spheres with two elastic layers in normal, frictionless contact is developed which simulates contact of articulating joints, and allows for the calculation of stresses and displacements in the layered region of contact. Using various layer/layer/substrate combinations, the effects of variations in layer and substrate properties are determined in relation to the occurrence of tensile and shear stresses as the source of crack initiation in joint cartilage and bone. Vertical cracking at the cartilage surface and horizontal splitting at the tidemark have been observed in joints with primary osteoarthritis. Deep vertical cracks in the calcified cartilage and underlying bone have been observed in blunt trauma experiments. The current model shows that cartilage stresses for a particular system are a function of the ratio of contact radius to total layer thickness (a/h). Surface tension, which is observed for a/h small, is alleviated as a/h is increased due to increased load, softening and/or thinning of the cartilage layer. Decreases in a/h due to cartilage stiffening lead to increased global compressive stresses and increased incidence of surface tension, consistent with impact-induced surface cracks. Cartilage stresses are not significantly affected by variations in stiffness of the underlying material. Tensile radial strains in the cartilage layer approach one-third of the normal compressive strains, and increase significantly with cartilage softening. For cases where the middle layer stiffness exceeds that of the underlying substrate, tensile stresses occur at the base of the middle layer, consistent with impact induced cracks in the zone of calcified cartilage and subchondral bone. The presence of the superficial tangential zone appears to have little effect on underlying cartilage stresses.

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