Introduction: Given the expansion of commercial and recreational space exploration, orthopaedic surgeons will need to understand the implications of microgravity on cartilaginous damage and to anticipate the resulting pathology from accelerated chondrolysis. The purpose of this systematic review is to evaluate the effects of space and microgravity on hip and knee articular cartilage, including its impact on joint mobility and functional status.
Materials and methods: A review of the current literature was performed utilizing the terms "joints," "joint mobility," "articular cartilage," "knee," "hip," "space," "microgravity," and "osteoarthritis" in PubMed and Google Scholar from 1990 to 2018, yielding a total of 1,400 citations following the removal of 500 duplicates. Following screening by eligibility criteria, five reports were included.
Results: Dysregulation of osteogenesis and weakened structural integrity of hip and knee cartilage were demonstrated secondary to microgravity. Adequate cartilage repair requires Earth-like conditions as signified by a statistically significant increase in serum cartilage oligomeric matrix protein concentrations in astronauts. Reduced loading led to the degradation of knee ligaments and menisci which may pose a risk for subluxation or dislocation. Murine studies demonstrated decreased articular cartilage thickness in the medial femoral condyle and patella as assessed by ultrasound. Additionally, glycosaminoglycan levels in unloaded rats were lower than weight-bearing rats, with a concomitant increase in matrix metalloproteinase-13 protein, degrading collagen. Return to weight-bearing demonstrated partial recovery of cartilaginous degeneration.
Conclusions: Space and associated microgravity conditions adversely impact articular cartilage as demonstrated in murine and human studies. The pathogenetic process occurs due to the mechanically responsive nature of cartilage, with an increase in cartilage metabolism in microgravity. There remains a marked paucity of literature regarding the gravitational force necessary for adequate cartilage survival and the impact of space-related radiation on cartilage repair. Additionally, further studies should assess pharmacologic interventions, such as recombinant human fibroblast growth factor to stimulate cartilaginous growth.