Objective: We previously reported that an increase of cartilage thickness is the earliest measurable change by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in early stages of experimental osteoarthritis (OA). Our present objective was to study the microscopic translation of this finding in order to know whether the cartilage thickness increment represents the earliest structural damage or whether it alternatively constitutes a non-progressive reversible phenomenon.
Methods: OA was induced by partial medial meniscectomy in rabbits. Normal and sham-operated animals were used as controls. Gross and microscopic cartilage changes were sequentially assessed after surgery at 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 52 weeks, and compared to MRI findings.
Results: The swelling of cartilage detected by MRI correlated with depletion in matrix proteoglycans and cellular loss, which were closely related to the progression of OA at the earliest stages. Abnormalities of the cartilage structure appeared only in advanced OA.
Conclusion: Cartilage swelling detected by MRI is due to proteoglycan depletion and represents the earliest abnormality in OA. Because it is accompanied by cellular loss, it cannot be merely attributed to surgical trauma and represents true tissue damage. The biological meaning of volume variations detected by MRI should be assessed carefully taking into account the disease stage as an increase in cartilage height also reflects cartilage damage and not a reparative process.