The distribution and extent of traumatic lesions were prospectively evaluated with MR imaging in 40 patients with closed head injuries. Primary intraaxial lesions were classified according to their distinctive topographical distribution within the brain and were of four main types: (1) diffuse axonal injury (48.2%), (2) cortical contusion (43.7%), (3) subcortical gray-matter injury (4.5%), and (4) primary brainstem injury (3.6%). Diffuse axonal injury most commonly involved the white matter of the frontal and temporal lobes, the body and splenium of the corpus callosum, and the corona radiata. Cortical contusions most frequently involved the inferior, lateral, and anterior aspects of the frontal and temporal lobes. Primary brainstem lesions were most commonly seen in the dorsolateral aspects of the rostral brainstem. The pattern and distribution of primary lesions seen by MR were compared with those expected from previous pathologic studies and found to be quite similar. Our data and review of the literature would also indicate that MR detects a more complete spectrum of traumatic lesions than does CT. Secondary forms of injury (territorial arterial infarction, pressure necrosis from increased intracranial pressure, cerebral herniation, secondary brainstem injury) were also visible by MR in some cases. The level of consciousness was most impaired in patients with primary brainstem injury, followed by those with widespread diffuse axonal injury and subcortical gray-matter injury. The best MR imaging planes, pulse sequences, and imaging strategies for evaluating and classifying traumatic lesions were evaluated, and the mechanisms by which traumatic stresses result in injury were reviewed. MR was found to be superior to CT and to be very effective in the detection of traumatic head lesions and some secondary forms of injury. While T2-weighted images were most useful for lesion detection, T1-weighted images proved to be most useful for anatomic localization and classification.