In this Review we describe three approaches for cartilage tissue repair at the rheumatology–orthopaedics interface: disease-modifying osteoarthritis (OA) drug (DMOAD) treatment; cell-based therapies, and intrinsic cartilage repair by joint distraction. DMOADs can slow the progression of joint damage. Cell-based therapies have evolved to do the same, through selection of the most potent cell types (and combinations thereof), as well as identification of permissive boundary conditions for indications. Joint distraction techniques, meanwhile, have now demonstrated the capacity to stimulate actual intrinsic tissue repair. Although this progress is promising, true biological joint reconstruction remains distant on the developmental pathway of 'regenerative medicine'. Prolonged functional repair—that is, cure of diseases such as OA—remains an unmet medical need and scientific challenge, for which comparative and constructive interaction between these physical, chemical and cellular approaches will be required. Careful selections of patients and combinations of approaches will need to be made and tested to demonstrate their cost-effectiveness. Only with such rational and integrated assessment of outcomes will the promising results of these approaches be consolidated in clinical practice.