Abstract

Early stage osteoarthritis is characterized by disruption of the superficial zone (SZ) of articular cartilage, including collagen damage and proteoglycan loss, resulting in “mechanical softening” of the extracellular matrix (ECM). The role of the SZ in controlling fluid exudation and imbibition during loading and unloading, respectively, was studied using confined creep compression tests. Bovine osteochondral (OC) plugs were subjected to either a static (88 kPa) or cyclic (0–125 kPa at 1 Hz) compressive stress for five minutes, and the cartilage deformation and recovery were measured during tissue loading and unloading, respectively. During unloading, the articular surface of the cartilage was either loaded with a small 1% tare load (∼1 kPa) applied through a porous load platen (covered), or completely unloaded (uncovered). Then the SZ (∼10%) of the cartilage was removed and the creep tests were repeated. Randomized tests were performed on each OC specimen to assess variability within and between plugs. Static creep strain was always greater than cyclic creep strain except at the beginning of loading (10–20 cycles). Uncovering the articular surface after creep deformation resulted in faster thickness recovery compared to the covered recovery. Removal of the SZ resulted in increased static and cyclic creep strains, as well as an increase in the cyclic peak-to-peak strain envelope. Our results indicate that an intact SZ is essential for normal cartilage mechanical function during joint motion by controlling fluid exudation and imbibition, and concomitantly ECM deformation and recovery, when loaded and unloaded, respectively.

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