Aggrecan cleavage by a disintegrin and metalloproteinase with a thrombospondin type 1 motif, member 5 (ADAMTS-5) is crucial for the breakdown of cartilage matrix during osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that leads to the progressive destruction of articular structures. The mechanisms of ADAMTS-5 activation and their links to the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis remain poorly understood, but syndecans have been shown to be involved in the activation of ADAMTS-4 (ref. 3). Here we show that syndecan-4 is specifically induced in type X collagen-producing chondrocytes both in human osteoarthritis and in murine models of the disease. The loss of syndecan-4 in genetically modified mice and intra-articular injections of syndecan-4-specific antibodies into wild-type mice protect from proteoglycan loss and thereby prevent osteoarthritic cartilage damage in a surgically induced model of osteoarthritis. The occurrence of less severe osteoarthritis-like cartilage destruction in both syndecan-4-deficient mice and syndecan-4-specific antibody-treated wild-type mice results from a marked decrease in ADAMTS-5 activity. Syndecan-4 controls the activation of ADAMTS-5 through direct interaction with the protease and through regulating mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK)-dependent synthesis of matrix metalloproteinase-3 (MMP-3). Our data suggest that strategies aimed at the inhibition of syndecan-4 will be of great value for the treatment of cartilage damage in osteoarthritis.