This review provides methodological background and some guidelines for the evaluation of imaging modalities for the lumbar spine and reviews the current literature on the basis of different levels of efficacy which consider standards beyond technical quality or diagnostic accuracy. From a MEDLINE search, 672 articles (1985-1995) were retrieved which focused on the development or application of imaging modalities for lumbar spinal disorders. The papers were categorized according to different efficacy levels at which the imaging modalities were assessed. This review has demonstrated that the vast majority of reports evaluate imaging studies for the lumbar spine only at the technical efficacy level. A minor proportion of the articles focus on the evaluation at the level of diagnostic accuracy. Articles which assess imaging studies on a higher level of efficacy (e.g., diagnostic and therapeutic impact, patient outcome and cost-benefit analysis) are sparse. This review has outlined frequent methodological flaws in patient selection and design of imaging studies for the lumbar spine. The spine specialist should therefore become very critical in the interpretation of those studies and pay attention to patient selection and spectrum, choice of the reference standard, sample size, various forms of biases, and the reasoning behind clinical recommendations in order to improve his patient care.