OBJECTIVE: There is evidence that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids alleviate the progression of osteoarthritis (OA). However, little work has been done to investigate the effect of fatty acids on bone marrow lesions and knee cartilage in healthy subjects. We examined this in a cohort of healthy middle-aged subjects without clinical knee OA.

METHODS: Two hundred and ninety-three healthy adults without knee pain or injury were recruited from an existing community-based cohort. Intakes of fatty acids and food sources of these were estimated from a food frequency questionnaire at baseline. Tibial cartilage volume, tibial plateau bone area, tibiofemoral cartilage defects and bone marrow lesions were assessed approximately 10 years later using magnetic resonance imaging.

RESULTS: In multivariate analyses, higher intakes of monounsaturated fatty acids (OR=2.14, 95% CI 1.04-4.39, P=0.04), total (OR=1.77, 95% CI 1.13-2.77, P=0.01) and n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (OR=1.69, 95% CI 1.10-2.61, P=0.02) were associated with an increased risk of bone marrow lesions. Intake of fatty acids was not significantly associated with cartilage volume or cartilage defects.

CONCLUSION: These findings support the dietary recommendation towards a shift to foods rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in order to maintain an optimal balance between dietary n-3 and n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which is also important in the prevention of atherosclerosis. Although our findings will need to be confirmed in longitudinal studies, they suggest the potential of fatty acids to adversely effect the knee joint.

Key words: omega ratio, omega balance