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New research could lead to earlier confirmation of osteoarthritis by identifying changes in tissue fluid flow.

A diagnosis of osteoarthritis is usually only confirmed after the patient develops irreversible symptoms such as joint pain or joint stiffness. But a new study from the University of Eastern Finland shows that changes in the flow of interstitial fluid in articular cartilage could be an indicator revealing the onset of the joint disease.

The PhD study of Janne Mäkelä, MSc, focused on structural and functional changes in articular cartilage at different stages of osteoarthritis, the university reported last week. The study combined structural data with functional data measured from articular cartilage samples, enabling a detailed analysis of how individual structural components affect cartilage loading and how this process changes in the development of osteoarthritis.

Results published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, and the Journal of Biomechanics, show that the flow of interstitial fluid is associated with many osteoarthritis-induced structural changes. Damage to the solid parts of the cartilage enhances the fluid flow from the cartilage, weakening its stiffness under static loading. Increase in the fluid flow seems to be the first functional change indicative of osteoarthritis.

In particular, Mäkelä found that the collagen network architecture was the most susceptible single structural component to osteoarthritis-induced changes. Damage to the collagen network affects the shock absorption ability of the cartilage, making it increasingly susceptible to further damage.

The study showed that changes in the collagen network architecture were a much more important factor affecting cartilage stiffness than the amount of collagen. The ability to protect the collagen network would be an efficient way to slow down the progression of osteoarthritis, Mäkelä suggested.

Discussing the significance of the findings, the University of Eastern Finland said that an in-depth understanding of the progression of osteoarthritis can help in the development of conservative prevention strategies and in slowing down the progression of the disease.

“The results of the study will hopefully facilitate an earlier detection and better treatment of osteoarthritis in the future,” the university concluded.