The histomorphogenesis of articular cartilage is regulated during skeletal development by the intermittent forces and motions imposed at diarthrodial joints. A key feature in this development is the formation of the superficial, transitional, radial, and calcified cartilage zones through the cartilage thickness. The histomorphological, biological, and mechanical characteristics of these zones can be correlated with the distributions of pressures, deformations, and pressure-induced fluid flow that are created in vivo. In a mature joint, cyclic loads produce cyclic hydrostatic fluid pressure through the entire cartilage thickness that is comparable in magnitude to the applied joint pressure. Prolonged physical activity can cause the total cartilage thickness to decrease about 5%, although the consolidation strains vary tremendously in the different zones. The superficial zone can experience significant fluid exudation and consolidation (compressive strains) in the range of 60% while the radial zone experiences relatively little fluid flow and consolidation. The topological variation in the histomorphologic appearance of articular cartilage is influenced by the local mechanical loading of chondrocytes in the different zones. Patterns of stress, strain, and fluid flow created in the joint result in spatial and temporal changes in the rates of synthesis and degradation of matrix proteins. When viewed over the course of a lifetime, even subtle difference in these cellular processes can affect the micro- and macro-morphology of articular cartilage. This hypothesis is supported by in vivo and ex vivo experiments where load-induced changes in matrix synthesis and catabolism, gene expression, and signal transduction pathways have been observed.
Articular cartilage; Histomorphology; Mechanical loading; Mechanotransduction; Extracellular matrix