Research into the pathophysiology of osteoarthritis (OA) has focused on cartilage and peri-articular bone, but there is increasing recognition that OA affects all of the joint tissues, including the synovium (SM). Under normal physiological conditions the synovial lining consists of a thin layer of cells with phenotypic features of macrophages and fibroblasts. These cells and the underlying vascularized connective tissue stroma form a complex structure that is an important source of synovial fluid (SF) components that are essential for normal cartilage and joint function. The histological changes observed in the SM in OA generally include features indicative of an inflammatory "synovitis"; specifically they encompass a range of abnormalities, such as synovial lining hyperplasia, infiltration of macrophages and lymphocytes, neoangiogenesis and fibrosis. The pattern of synovial reaction varies with disease duration and associated metabolic and structural changes in other joint tissues. Imaging modalities including magnetic resonance (MRI) and ultrasound (US) have proved useful in detecting and quantifying synovial abnormalities, but individual studies have varied in their methods of evaluation. Despite these differences, most studies have concluded that the presence of synovitis in OA is associated with more severe pain and joint dysfunction. In addition, synovitis may be predictive of faster rates of cartilage loss in certain patient populations. Recent studies have provided insights into the pathogenic mechanisms underlying the development of synovitis in OA. Available evidence suggests that the inflammatory process involves engagement of Toll-like receptors and activation of the complement cascade by degradation products of extracellular matrices of cartilage and other joint tissues. The ensuing synovial reaction can lead to synthesis and release of a wide variety of cytokines and chemokines. Some of these inflammatory mediators are detected in joint tissues and SF in OA and have catabolic effects on chondrocytes. These inflammatory mediators represent potential targets for therapeutic interventions designed to reduce both symptoms and structural joint damage in OA. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled "Osteoarthritis".
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