The purpose of this study was to evaluate the diagnostic performance of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in rotator cuff diseases. Forty consecutive patients studied by MRI from September 1990 to September 1992 were included in the study. MRI was performed on a 1.5 tesla MR scanner. Each MRI study was reviewed by two radiologists experienced in rotator cuff tendons. The MRI finding was compared with the surgical result. MRI sensitivity for all tears (partial and complete) was 1.0 (22/22), specificity 0.89 (16/18), accuracy rate 0.95 (38/40), and the predictive value 0.92 (22/24). Signal changes of the rotator cuff tendon (primary signs) were the most reliable criteria in diagnosis of the tear. Changes of subacromial and subdeltoid fat planes and bursa (secondary signs) were complimentary when primary signs were indeterminant. The direction of the long axis of abnormal signal intensity in the rotator cuff tendon may be a good indicator when differentiating tears from tendinitis. We conclude that MRI shows excellent performance in the determination of the presence or absence of a rotator cuff tear.