We studied 32 patients with osteoarthritis who had 5x macroradiographs taken of their wrists and hands at 6-month intervals over an 18-month period. The higher magnification and resolution of microfocal radiography permitted the quantitative detection of progressive changes in 4 different features: subchondral sclerosis, the number and size of osteophytes, juxtaarticular radiolucencies, and joint space narrowing. Compared with normal control subjects, subchondral cortical thickness was greater in all patients at entry and showed a variable degree of change over the study period. Osteophytes and juxtaarticular radiolucencies were present in all patients at study entry; by the end of the study, osteophytes had increased in number and area, and juxtaarticular radiolucencies had increased in area, but not in number. At entry, 44% of the patients had joint space narrowing significantly greater than that in the control subjects; by 18 months, this proportion increased to 65%. No correlation was found between subchondral sclerosis, osteophytes, juxtaarticular radiolucencies, and joint space narrowing. We conclude that in osteoarthritis of the hand, the bony changes have progressed significantly before the occurrence of radiographically evident joint space narrowing indicative of cartilage thinning.