The concentration of keratan sulfate (KS) epitope was measured in the serum of patients with osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA) by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and compared with that in the serum of patients with primary fibromyalgia syndrome (PFS) and of controls who had no joint disease. By Student's tau-test, the mean serum KS concentrations in OA and RA patients measured with monoclonal antibodies (MAb) 5-D-4 and 2-D-3 were significantly increased over those in the PFS and normal groups; similar findings were observed using a nonparametric test, except that levels in RA patients showed no difference from those in PFS patients and normal subjects. There was no significant correlation between joint scores or disease duration and KS levels in OA or RA patients. Gel filtration of sera revealed mainly large, polydisperse KS-bearing fragments which eluted in a broad profile. KS purified from sera by immunoaffinity chromatography consisted mainly of high-density proteoglycans. Electrophoresis of pooled high-density KS fractions in polyacrylamide-agarose gels followed by Western blotting with MAb 5-D-4 showed diffuse bands with relative mobilities corresponding to large proteoglycans. These findings are consistent with attachment of KS to protein core fragments of various sizes; KS in patient sera is comparable in size with that in normal sera. Elevations of serum KS levels occur in the presence of cartilage degradation, but do not quantitatively define the extent or duration of articular involvement.