Previous studies have established the value of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in detecting articular changes characteristic of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. We have observed some MRI features in OA of the knee presumably indicating synovial thickening. To determine whether these MR features represent chronic synovial inflammation, we studied the knees of nine patients at the mild end of the spectrum of OA of relatively short duration (89%: < or = 4 yr), who were selected because MRI showed anatomical abnormalities compatible with synovial thickening. The painful knee was examined using conventional and weight-bearing radiographs, MRI, and arthroscopy. MR images suggestive of synovial thickening typically appeared in or near the intercondylar region of the knee, in the infrapatellar fat pad, or in the posterior joint margin. The site of an arthroscopic biopsy of the synovial membrane was guided by MRI to the area thought to represent synovial thickening for each patient knee. Pathological examination of these synovial membrane biopsies showed a mild chronic synovitis, and thus a correspondence with the synovial thickening detected by MRI. Our results suggest that MRI can be used to evaluate the extent of synovitis, observed as synovial thickening, in patients with early OA of the knee.