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Scientists Study Arthritis Friction

The research of UC Santa Barbara scientists from the Dept. of Chemical Engineering and the Materials Dept. is making way for new, low-cost methods of early arthritis detection.

Jacob Israelachvili, UCSB professor of chemical engineering and material science, and a team of researchers have been studying friction patterns in osteoarthritis cases. Their findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis caused by wear and tear, or the overuse of joints. Our bones have about a one-eighth-inch-thick layer of cartilage between them, but due to constant joint use the cartilage can slowly deteriorate, exposing the nerves and causing pain. As arthritis progresses, the bones rub against each other with a specific type of friction.

Jacob Israelachvili described the types of friction the team was able to discover using an instrument called the surface force apparatus.

“[The friction is] either smooth sliding, sliding with a large initial ‘stiction’ followed by smooth sliding or continuous ‘stick-slip’ sliding. We find that the latter is probably the cause of damage rather than simply a high friction force.”

Since there is no cure to arthritis, early detection is key in treating and preventing the damage. Currently, doctors do not test patients for arthritis until the patient complains. But with this new finding, a device can be created to diagnose the arthritis in advance.

“Some gadget [could be created] that connected to a joint, to acoustically or electrically test if the friction is of the stick-slip type,” Israelachvili said.

Further research on this matter may prompt methods to prevent the stick-slip friction or completely arrest it.


A version of this article appeared on page 4 of February 5th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.

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