MR imaging of the lumbar spine has become a useful method for the noninvasive evaluation of low back pain. However, bone abnormalities are more difficult to detect than soft-tissue lesions, such as herniated disk. We reviewed 14 MR images of the lumbar spine in adults with spondylolisthesis. These were correlated with CT scans and plain films in all cases. From the CT scans and plain films we found that seven patients had spondylolysis and that seven had other causes for their spondylolisthesis. It was our opinion that the MR images suggested an abnormality of the pars interarticularis in all seven of the cases confirmed to have spondylolysis and in six of the seven patients that did not have spondylolysis. We also studied four cadaver lumbar spine, obtained as blocks of tissue, and scanned in the coronal, sagittal, and axial planes with MR and in the sagittal and axial planes with CT. The tissue blocks were then sectioned in the sagittal plane. Spondylolysis is suggested on sagittal MR images when there is an inability to resolve the marrow signal in the pars as uninterrupted from the superior to the inferior facet. This is caused by a dark signal on all pulsing sequences in the pars resulting from marginal sclerosis at the site of the break. If there is also a gap at the site of the break then there will also be an increased signal in the gap resulting from the presence of soft tissue. We found four situations in which the pars can simulate spondylolysis on sagittal MR images: (1) sclerosis of the neck of the pars: (2) partial volume imaging of the degenerative spur of the superior facet slightly lateral to the pars; (3) partial facetectomy; and (4) osteoblastic metastatic replacement of the marrow of the pars.