The combination of corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) has been commonly used for inflammation and chronic articular pain in the clinic. Nonetheless, the long-term administration of both medications might result in osteonecrosis of the knee due to repeated injections of steroids and side effects in the gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems. To overcome these unmet medical needs, we designed a microsphere-microcrystal-gel delivery system for intra-articular injection. Dexamethasone (DEX)-loaded microspheres (DMs) were optimized by Plackett-Burman and Taguchi orthogonal designs to extend their retention time in the knee joint. Celecoxib (CLX) microcrystals (CMs) were manufactured using an ultrasonic method to improve solubility and bioavailability. Moreover, a green solvent-free method was employed to crosslink and synthesize a novel poloxamer 407/Gantrez® S97-based gel system (GZF), which can undergo the sol-gel transition at lower concentrations. Then, DM and CM were loaded by GZF to form intra-articular injectable gels (DM/CM/Gel). The in vitro release of DEX and CLX showed a fast phase in 24 h followed by a controlled release of ∼8 d. Both blank microspheres and GZF gels displayed great biocompatibility against RAW264.7 macrophages. The most suitable dosages of 5 nM DEX and 125 nM CLX in the formulation were chosen because of their significant effects against macrophage inflammation with a lower administrative amount. An In vivo animal evaluation showed that DM/CM/Gel suppressed the release of inflammatory cytokines (TNF-α and IL-6) after 21 d of treatment. In addition, a histological evaluation revealed that DM/CM/Gel interrupted the progression of cartilage surface denudation and matrix loss. Therefore, DM/CM/Gel provides a prospective strategy for reforming traditional therapy for chronic articular disease.

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