A series of patients with clinically early inflammatory joint disease due to rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and Reiter's syndrome were examined by plain film radiography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The spin echo T1-weighted precontrast, T2-weighted, and, especially, T1-weighted postcontrast images demonstrated distinct differences in the distribution of inflammatory changes, both within and adjacent to involved small hand joints. Two major subtypes of inflammatory arthritis were shown, thus providing a specific differential diagnosis between rheumatoid arthritis and some patients with seronegative spondyloarthritis. In particular, all the patients with Reiter's syndrome who were studied, and half of those with psoriatic arthritis, had a distinctive pattern of extra-articular disease involvement. The need for a new classification of clinical subsets in psoriatic arthritis has been recently suggested. The present findings suggest that magnetic resonance imaging could be useful in such a reclassification of seronegative spondyloarthritis, as well as offering considerable potential for a reappraisal of pathogenesis and therapy. In this series, it was also noted that juxta-articular osteoporosis on plain film did not correlate with bone marrow oedema on MRI. Hence the aetiology of this common radiographic finding also merits further consideration.