Progression of osteoarthritis over time is poorly understood. The aim of the current study was to establish a timeline of “cartilage survival rate” per subregion of the knee in relation to mechanical alignment of the lower extremity. The study hypothesized that there are differences in progression of osteoarthritis between varus, valgus and physiologic lower extremity alignment.
Based on hip-knee-ankle standing radiographs at baseline, 234 knees had physiologic (180° ± 3°, mean 179.7°), 158 knees had varus (< 177°; mean 174.5°) and 66 knees valgus (> 183°; mean 185.2°) alignment (consecutive knees of the OAI “Index Knee” group, n = 458; mean age 61.7; 264 females). The Osteoarthritis Initiative (OAI; a multi-center, longitudinal, prospective observational study of knee osteoarthritis  using MRIs) defines progressive OA as a mean decrease of cartilage thickness of 136 µm/year and a mean decrease of cartilage volume by 5% over 1 year (DESS sequences, MRI). A Kaplan-Meier curve was generated for osteoarthritis progression based on OAI criteria.
Osteoarthritis progression based on volume decrease of 5% in varus knees occurred after 30.8 months (medial femoral condyle), after 37 months (medial tibia), after 42.9 months (lateral femoral condyle) and 43.4 months (lateral tibia), respectively. In a valgus alignment progression was detectable after 31.5 months (lateral tibia), after 36.2 months (lateral femoral condyle), after 40.4 months (medial femoral condyle) and 43.8 months (medial tibia), respectively. The physiological alignment shows a progression after 37.8 months (medial femoral condyle), after 41.6 months (lateral tibia), after 41.7 months (medial tibia) and after 43 months (lateral femoral condyle), respectively.
Based on data from the OAI, the rate and location (subregion) of osteoarthritis progression of the knee is strongly associated with lower extremity mechanical alignment.