The development, maintenance, and destruction of cartilage are regulated by mechanical factors throughout life. Mechanical cues in the cartilage fetal endoskeleton influence the expression of genes that guide the processes of growth, vascular invasion, and ossification. Intermittent fluid pressure maintains the cartilage phenotype whereas mild tension (or shear) promotes growth and ossification. The articular cartilage thickness is determined by the position at which the subchondral growth front stabilizes. In mature joints, cartilage is thickest and healthiest where the contact pressure and cartilage fluid pressure are greatest. The depth-dependent histomorphology reflects the local fluid pressure, tensile strain, and fluid exudation. Osteoarthritis represents the final demise and loss of cartilage in the skeletal elements. The initiation and progression of osteoarthritis can follow many pathways and can be promoted by mechanical factors including: (1) reduced loading, which activates the subchondral growth front by reducing fluid pressure; (2) blunt impact, causing microdamage and activation of the subchondral growth front by local shear stress; (3) mechanical abnormalities that increase wear at the articulating surface; and (4) other mechanically related factors. Research should be directed at integrating our mechanical understanding of osteoarthritis pathogenesis and progression within the framework of cellular and molecular events throughout ontogeny.