What You Should Know About Generalized Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis appearing in multiple joints

Generalized osteoarthritis is a subset of osteoarthritis in which three or more joints or groups of joints are affected. It is often referred to as GOA and may be referred to as polyarticular osteoarthritis and multi-joint osteoarthritis.

Your condition may be categorized as generalized osteoarthritis if it appears in multiple areas, almost always including the hand. If you have generalized osteoarthritis, you are more likely to face challenges with function, disability, and quality of life.

Most commonly, generalized osteoarthritis occurs in the spine, knees, hips, base of the thumb in the first CMC (carpometacarpophalangeal joint), tips of the fingers, and big toe. The wrists, elbows, and shoulders are typically not involved in generalized osteoarthritis.

There isn't a standard definition for generalized osteoarthritis and there may be a movement away from using the term, but it appears very often in medical literature. For example, in 30 different studies that had specific definitions of generalized osteoarthritis, there were 15 different definitions. All of the definitions included the hands and most included the knees and hips, but fewer than half assessed the spine or feet.

Patient describing wrist pain to physical therapist : Stock Photo settings Comp Add to Board Patient describing wrist pain to physical therapist
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Risk Factors for Generalized Osteoarthritis

Generalized osteoarthritis develops spontaneously. Because the definition of generalized osteoarthritis is so variable, it isn't a very useful classification for finding risk factors or for guiding treatment. Further subcategories of GOA would be more useful in guiding research and treatment strategies. Studies have found these overall characteristics with the subcategory as it stands today.

Age is a factor, with a higher risk of GOA progression with increasing age seen in almost all studies. Women are more likely to have multiple joint osteoarthritis than men. Older women are more affected by generalized osteoarthritis than any other group. Several studies found more multiple joint osteoarthritis in people who were overweight or obese.

Generalized osteoarthritis is more prevalent in patients with advanced knee osteoarthritis than in patients with advanced hip osteoarthritis. Some researchers believe there is a correlation between the presence of Heberden's nodes and generalized osteoarthritis.

A gene defect that may cause primary generalized osteoarthritis has been studied, and there have been studies that show a high degree of inheritability of generalized osteoarthritis. Further studies along these lines might find a biochemical cause and lead to targeted treatment.

Living With Generalized Osteoarthritis

If you have osteoarthritis in multiple joints, you should seek medical care so you can maintain your quality of life and avoid disability. Get advice on how to stay as active as possible so you can maintain function.

Subsets of Osteoarthritis

The other two subsets of osteoarthritis are primary osteoarthritis and secondary osteoarthritis. 

  • Primary osteoarthritis is characterized by joint pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, and weakness. Primary osteoarthritis is also referred to as idiopathic, meaning, there is no known underlying or predisposing cause. Primary osteoarthritis is recognized as the most common form of osteoarthritis.
  • Secondary osteoarthritis has an underlying or predisposing cause. The underlying conditions that cause secondary osteoarthritis include injury, overuse of a joint, rheumatoid arthritis, or other arthritis-related conditions, obesity, and more.
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nelson AE, Smith MW, Golightly YM, Jordan JM. "Generalized osteoarthritis": a systematic review. Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2014;43(6):713-20. doi:10.1016/j.semarthrit.2013.12.007

  2. Kraus VB, Jordan JM, Doherty M, et al. The Genetics of Generalized Osteoarthritis (GOGO) study: study design and evaluation of osteoarthritis phenotypes. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2007;15(2):120–7. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2006.10.002

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Osteoarthritis.

Additional Reading

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."