Little is known about changes in human cartilage thickness and subchondral bone plate area (tAB) during growth. The objective of this study was to explore longitudinal change in femorotibial cartilage thickness and tAB in adolescent athletes, and to compare these data with those of mature former athletes. Twenty young (baseline age 16.0 ± 0.6 years) and 20 mature (46.3 ± 4.7 years) volleyball athletes were studied (10 men and 10 women in each group). Magnetic resonance images were acquired at baseline and at year 2-follow-up, and longitudinal changes in cartilage thickness and tAB were determined quantitatively after segmentation. The yearly increase in total femorotibial cartilage thickness was 0.8% (95% confidence interval [CI]: -0.5; 2.1%) in young men and 1.4% (95% CI: 0.7; 2.2%) in young women; the gain in tAB was 0.4% (95% CI: -0.1; 0.8%) and 0.7% (95% CI: 0.2; 1.2%), respectively (no significant difference between sexes). The cartilage thickness increase was greatest in the medial femur, and was not significantly associated with the variability in tAB growth (r=-0.19). Mature athletes showed smaller gains in tAB, and lost >1% of femorotibial cartilage per annum, with the greatest loss observed in the lateral tibia. In conclusion, we find an increase in cartilage thickness (and some in tAB) in young athletes toward the end of adolescence. This increase appeared somewhat greater in women than men, but the differences between both sexes did not reach statistical significance. Mature (former) athletes displayed high rates of (lateral) femorotibial cartilage loss, potentially due to a high prevalence of knee injuries.
Keywords: Adolescence; Athletes; Cartilage; Development; Knee; Subchondral bone; Thickness.
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