Abstract The wear of ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) is considered as one of the major reasons for revision of artificial joints. While in vivo measurements have shown a significant temperature increase in knee implants, the amount of heat dissipated within the UHMWPE tibial component and its influence on the friction behavior when paired with a cobalt–chromium (CoCrMo) femoral component is unknown. Our goal was to address these questions by measuring the temperature rise over a wide range of tribological loading conditions that mimic certain spots on artificial knee joints. The temperature rise as a function of lubricant, sliding velocity, coefficient of friction and maximum load was determined and analyzed. Additionally, the heat gradient during constant loading was investigated that allows the calculation of heat flow. The test setup consists of a wheel-on-flat laboratory testing device. Tests were performed in ambient air and different lubricants. During the tests, the temperature rise in the polyethylene was recorded with embedded thermocouples. The temperature rise was high and shown to be directly linked to load, coefficient of friction and relative velocity. Because it is generally assumed that the applied energy is an indicator for the development of wear in particles, some considerations for the design of knee joints are proposed based on our observations. The amount of heat dissipated in the polyethylene under cyclic loading was measured and is discussed in comparison with the theoretical model of temperature in friction pairs.