With the widespread introduction of preoperative radiotherapy for rectal cancer and the development of transanal endoscopic microsurgery for selected early lesions, preoperative radiological staging of these tumours has taken on increasing importance. This study is a systematic review to evaluate computed tomography (CT), endorectal sonography (ES) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as preoperative staging modalities in rectal cancer. A Medline-based search identifying studies using CT, ES, or MRI in preoperative staging of rectal cancer between 1980 and 1998 was undertaken. The list of papers was supplemented by extensive cross-checking of citation lists. Studies were included if they met predetermined criteria. Data from the accepted studies were entered into pooled tables comparing radiological and pathological staging results for each modality both in determining bowel wall penetration and involvement of lymph nodes. Accuracy, sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value, negative predictive value, positive likelihood ratio and negative likelihood ratio were determined for the pooled results. Eighty-three studies from 78 papers including 4,897 patients met the inclusion criteria. In determining the wall penetration of the tumour the values for sensitivity for CT, ES, MRI and MRI with endorectal coil were 78%, 93%, 86% and 89%; for specificity 63%, 78%, 77% and 79%; and for accuracy 73%, 87%, 82% and 84%, respectively. In determining the nodal involvement by tumour the sensitivity values for CT, ES, MRI and MRI with endorectal coil 52%, 71%, 65% and 82%; for specificity 78%, 76%, 80% and 83%; and for accuracy 66%, 74%, 74% and 82%, respectively. MRI with an endorectal coil is the single investigation that most accurately predicts pathological stage in rectal cancer.