PNAS Plus: Stick-slip friction and wear of articular joints
Stick-slip friction was observed in articular cartilage under certain loading and sliding conditions and systematically studied. Using the Surface Forces Apparatus, we show that stick-slip friction can induce permanent morphological changes (a change in the roughness indicative of wear/damage) in cartilage surfaces, even under mild loading and sliding conditions. The different load and speed regimes can be represented by friction maps—separating regimes of smooth and stick-slip sliding; damage generally occurs within the stick-slip regimes. Prolonged exposure of cartilage surfaces to stick-slip sliding resulted in a significant increase of surface roughness, indicative of severe morphological changes of the cartilage superficial zone. To further investigate the factors that are conducive to stick-slip and wear, we selectively digested essential components of cartilage: type II collagen, hyaluronic acid (HA), and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). Compared with the normal cartilage, HA and GAG digestions modified the stick-slip behavior and increased surface roughness (wear) during sliding, whereas collagen digestion decreased the surface roughness. Importantly, friction forces increased up to 2, 10, and 5 times after HA, GAGs, and collagen digestion, respectively. Also, each digestion altered the friction map in different ways. Our results show that (i) wear is not directly related to the friction coefficient but (ii) more directly related to stick-slip sliding, even when present at small amplitudes, and that (iii) the different molecular components of joints work synergistically to prevent wear. Our results also suggest potential noninvasive diagnostic tools for sensing stick-slip in joints.