Hand osteoarthritis (OA) is a prevalent disorder. Hand OA is not one single disease, but a heterogeneous group of disorders. Radiographic signs of hand OA, such as osteophytes or joint space narrowing, can be found in up to 81% of the elderly population. Several hand OA subsets--such as nodal interphalangeal OA, thumb base OA and erosive OA--can be discriminated. Furthermore, the experience of symptoms and the course of the disease differ between patients. Studies that used well-defined study populations with longitudinal follow-up have shown that similarities and differences can be observed in the pathogenesis, epidemiology and risk factors of the various hand OA subsets. Erosive OA in particular, characterized by erosive lesions on radiographical images, has a higher clinical burden and worse outcome than nonerosive hand OA. Imaging modalities (such as ultrasonography) have increased our knowledge of the role of inflammation of the disease. Our understanding of the heterogeneous nature of hand OA can eventually lead to increased knowledge of the pathogenesis of, and ultimately new treatment modalities for, this complex disease.