The purpose of this study was to evaluate the diagnostic accuracy of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) by comparing MRI with conventional radiology (CR) findings and by correlating these findings with the clinical and serological profile of the disease. The hands of 31 patients (24 females, 7 males) affected by classical RA were studied using a Magnetom 1.0 T tomograph. Coronal, axial, and/or sagittal SE T1 and GE (FLASH 2D FL: 70 degrees-15 degrees) images were obtained in all patients. Moreover, in 7 patients the MRI study was performed after i.v. injection of Gd DTPA contrast medium (0.2 mM/kg). Ten healthy volunteers were also studied as controls. In all patients a conventional radiological study was performed as well as a clinical and serological investigation. Two blinded observers evaluated the MRI and CR findings and checked 15 elementary pathological lesions, assigning an MRI and a CR score to each patient. MRI provided higher accuracy than CR in detecting rheumatoid soft tissue changes and minimal skeletal lesions, while the opposite was true for severe skeletal lesions. No correlations emerged between the MRI/CR findings and clinical and serological data. This study suggests that MRI and CR are complementary techniques in the evaluation of the anatomical changes in RA.