Prospective and retrospective magnetic resonance (MR) imaging (0.35-T) interpretations were compared with final diagnoses in 110 patients suspected to have osteomyelitis. Diagnostic criteria of dark marrow on T1-weighted images and bright marrow on short-tau inversion-recovery images yielded a prospective sensitivity of 98% and a prospective specificity of 75%. Sixty percent of uncomplicated septic joint effusions demonstrated abnormal marrow signal intensity that was mistaken for osteomyelitis. Retrospective review revealed that overall specificity could be improved to 82% without loss of sensitivity if increased marrow signal intensity on T2-weighted images were included as an additional criterion. Specificity may be further increased by use of knowledge of morphologic patterns that distinguish various forms of osteomyelitis. Ten patients (9%) had potential pitfall diagnoses (eg, fracture, infarction, healed infection) that mimic osteomyelitis. MR imaging can be sensitive and specific for osteomyelitis if characteristic appearances and pitfall diagnoses are incorporated into the diagnostic criteria.