Acute thoracic aortic dissection has a high mortality if untreated, so the diagnosis must be rapidly made if mortality is to be lowered significantly. Multiple imaging techniques are often used. This retrospective study from 1988 to 1993 assesses the usefulness in diagnosis of chest X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scanning, aortography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), trans-thoracic (TTE) and trans-oesophageal (TOE) echocardiography. Forty-two patients with a final clinical diagnosis of dissection were studied. The diagnosis was confirmed in 16 (13 at surgery and three at autopsy). Three died with dissection given as the only cause for death. Chest X-ray abnormalities were seen in all 19 patients with surgery or death from dissection, with a widened mediastinum and/or dilated aorta being present in 17. In the group of 16 patients with surgery or autopsy proof, CT scans found dissections in 9 of 12 patients studied and correctly classified the type in only five. Aortography was performed in five, with accurate depiction of dissection and type in all. TTE found dissections in three of eight patients imaged by this method. MRI and TOE were performed each on two patients, with accurate depiction of dissection and type in each. Because of the relatively low sensitivity of CT scanning in defining aortic dissections Westmead Hospital is currently assessing the use of TOE as the prime imaging modality prior to surgical intervention.