Abstract Gamma irradiation of Ultrahigh Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) leads to long-lived free radicals which react with oxygen. Diffusion of oxygen, occurring over months or years, controlled by the permeability characteristics of the polymer, results in progressive oxidation, breaking of polymer chains, alteration of the crystalline portion of the polymer, and deterioration of the mechanical properties of the polymer. This paper reviews the observations in the literature on this issue and then presents a conceptual model concerning the interplay of radical diffusion, oxygen diffusion, non-uniform permeability, and free-radically driven chain reactions in order to explain these observations. The suggested model is based on literature that is available on the oxidation of linear polyethylenes during and after irradiation. The model directs the attention of researchers in the field of orthopaedic implants to the complexity of the process and the variety of issues and parameters to be considered while studying the long-term effects of radiation sterilization on UHMWPE.