To evaluate the antioxidant activity of the glycosaminoglycans hyaluronic acid (HYA) and chondroitin-4-sulphate (C4S), we used a rat model of collagen-induced arthritis (CIA). Arthritis was induced in Lewis rats by multiple intradermal injections of 250 microl of emulsion containing bovine type II collagen in complete Freund's adjuvant at the base of the tail and into three to five other sites on the back. Rats were challenged again with the same antigen preparation 7 days later. Disease developed about 11 days after the second immunization. The effects of treatment in the rats were monitored by biochemical parameters and by macroscopic and histological evaluations in blood, synovial tissue and articular cartilage. Arthritis produced the following symptoms: severe periarticular erythema, edema and inflammation in the hindpaws; membrane peroxidation in the cartilage of the joints; endogenous antioxidant wasting; high tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) plasma levels; and synovial neutrophil accumulation. Treatment with HYA and C4S, starting at the onset of arthritis for 10 days, limited the erosive action of the disease in the articular joints of knee and paw, reduced lipid peroxidation, restored the endogenous antioxidants reduced glutathione (GSH) and superoxide dismutase, decreased plasma TNF-alpha levels, and limited synovial neutrophil infiltration. These data confirm that erosive destruction of the joint cartilage in CIA is due at least in part to free radicals released by activated neutrophils and produced by other biochemical pathways. The beneficial effects obtained with the treatment suggest that HYA and C4S could be considered natural endogenous macromolecules to limit erosive damage in CIA or as a useful tool with which to study the involvement of free radicals in rheumatoid arthritis.