Microfractures and microcracks in subchondral bone: are they relevant to osteoarthrosis?

Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 2003 Nov;29(4):675-85. doi: 10.1016/s0889-857x(03)00061-9.


The existing data are consistent with the view that reactivation of the secondary center of ossification and not the stiffening of the metaphyseal trabecular bone is a mechanism of cartilage loss in idiopathic OA. The stiffening of the subchondral calcified structures would appear to be etiologically incidental and, as the arthrotic process progresses, sometimes locally transient. It is also now clear that although the apparent density of the subchondral cortical plate increases because of thickening of the plate as the OA process progresses, the elastic modulus of the bone might be reduced locally because of increases in vascularization and in the rate of bony remodeling subjacent to the cartilage. Microcracks in the subchondral mineralized tissues might contribute to degeneration of the hyaline cartilage by initiating vascular invasion of the calcified cartilage, leading to reactivation of the tidemark and enchondral ossification with subsequent thinning of the overlying articular cartilage. The thinning would tend to increase shear stresses at the base of the articular cartilage [38], overwhelming the ability of the cartilage to repair itself, resulting in cartilage degeneration. The pathogenesis of cartilage breakdown in OA is a biological and a mechanical process. OA can be understood only if the relationship between the mechanics and the biology is fully appreciated. Failure to properly absorb impact leads to microdamage in the subchondral plate and calcified cartilage. The authors believe that this action causes the secondary center of ossification at the tidemark to advance by enchondral ossification, leading to thickening of the mineralized tissues and thinning of the overlying hyaline articular cartilage. Microcracks will cause the initiation of targeted remodeling, accounting for the increased turnover and reduced material density of the subchondral plate. The resultant thinning of the articular cartilage might lead to initiation of further microdamage in bone and cartilage through a positive feedback mechanism, which can ultimately lead to complete loss of the articular cartilage. In this view, the mechanical overload that initiates microdamage of the subchondral bone provokes a biological response that potentiates the progression of articular cartilage damage in OA.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Cartilage / metabolism*
  • Cartilage / pathology*
  • Fractures, Bone / complications*
  • Fractures, Bone / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Ossification, Heterotopic
  • Osteoarthritis / physiopathology*