Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis worldwide. In this condition, damage to the extracellular matrix (ECM) of cartilage occurs, resulting in joint destruction. Factors mediating cartilage damage include mechanical injury, cytokine and superoxide release on a background of genetic susceptibility and obesity. Studies of arthritic cartilage show increased production of ECM molecules including type II collagen, cartilage oligomeric matrix protein, fibronectin (FN) and fibromodulin. Recent reports suggest that ECM proteins may become endogenous catabolic factors during joint damage. Activation of pro-inflammatory pathways by ECM proteins has led to their description as damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs). The ECM proteins involved include fibromodulin, which activates the complement pathway and may promote the persistence of joint inflammation. Fragmentation of type II collagen, FN and hyaluronan reveals cryptic epitopes that stimulate proteolytic enzymes including matrix metalloproteinases and aggrecanases (ADAMTSs – a disintegrin and metalloproteinase with thrombospondin type 1 motifs). Proteolytic fragments also stimulate the release of nitric oxide, chemokines and cytokines and activation of the MAP kinases. Reports are emerging that the receptors for the fragments described involve interaction with integrins and toll-like receptors. In this review the contribution of endogenous ECM molecules to joint destruction will be discussed. A deeper understanding of the pathways stimulated by endogenous ligands could offer potential avenues for novel therapies in the future.