The size of full-thickness focal cartilage defect is accepted to be predictive of its fate, but at which size threshold treatment is required is unclear. Clarification of the mechanism behind this threshold effect will help determining when treatment is required. The objective was to investigate the effect of defect size on strains in the collagen fibers and the non-fibrillar matrix of surrounding cartilage. These strains may indicate matrix disruption. Tissue deformation into the defect was expected, stretching adjacent superficial collagen fibers, while an osteochondral implant was expected to prevent these deformations.
Finite element simulations of cartilage/cartilage contact for intact, 0.5 to 8 mm wide defects and 8 mm implant cases were performed. Impact, a load increase to 2 MPa in 1 ms, and creep loading, a constant load of 0.5 MPa for 900 s, scenarios were simulated. A composition-based material model for articular cartilage was employed.
Impact loading caused low strain levels for all models. Creep loading increased deviatoric strains and collagen strains in the surrounding cartilage. Deviatoric strains increased gradually with defect size, but the surface area at which collagen fiber strains exceeded failure thresholds, abruptly increased for small increases of defect size. This was caused by a narrow distribution of collagen fiber strains resulting from the non-linear stiffness of the fibers. We postulate this might be the mechanism behind the existence of a critical defect size. Filling of the defect with an implant reduced deviatoric and collagen fiber strains towards values for intact cartilage.