OBJECTIVES: Obesity is a well-recognised risk factor for osteoarthritis (OA). Our aim is to characterise body mass index (BMI)-associated pathological changes in the osteochondral unit and determine if obesity is the major causal antecedent of early joint replacement in patients with OA.
METHODS: We analysed the correlation between BMI and the age at which patients undergo total knee replacement (TKR) in 41 023 patients from the Australian Orthopaedic Association National Joint Replacement Registry. We then investigated the effect of BMI on pathological changes of the tibia plateau of knee joint in a representative subset of the registry.
RESULTS: 57.58% of patients in Australia who had TKR were obese. Patients with overweight, obese class I & II or obese class III received a TKR 1.89, 4.48 and 8.08 years earlier than patients with normal weight, respectively. Microscopic examination revealed that horizontal fissuring at the osteochondral interface was the major pathological feature of obesity-related OA. The frequency of horizontal fissure was strongly associated with increased BMI in the predominant compartment. An increase in one unit of BMI (1 kg/m2) increased the odds of horizontal fissures by 14.7%. 84.4% of the horizontal fissures were attributable to obesity. Reduced cartilage degradation and alteration of subchondral bone microstructure were also associated with increased BMI.
CONCLUSIONS: The key pathological feature in OA patients with obesity is horizontal fissuring at the osteochondral unit interface. Obesity is strongly associated with a younger age of first TKR, which may be a result of horizontal fissures.