The purpose of this investigation was to determine differences in tissue composition of symptomatic and asymptomatic disc herniations as reflected in T1 and T2 relaxation times (quantitative magnetic resonance imaging). Thirty patients with sciatica severe enough to require a discectomy and 46 asymptomatic volunteers (controls) were included in this study. Both groups had a clinical examination as well as a magnetic resonance investigation of the lumbar spine. The longitudinal and transverse magnetic relaxation times (T1 and T2, respectively) were calculated from a set of 20 images obtained with five single-slice/multi-echo sequences at different repetition time values on a commercial whole-body system (1.5 T). Twenty-two symptomatic and asymptomatic disc herniations could be matched according to age, gender, disc level, and the extent of herniation (protrusion or extrusion) and were compared with regard to T1 and T2 relaxation times. Symptomatic disc herniations exhibited significantly (pT1 < 0.04 and pT2 < 0.003) shorter T1 (delta T1: -182.1 milliseconds, -15%) and T2 (delta T2: -11.0 milliseconds, -21%) relaxation times than matched asymptomatic herniations. Symptomatic disc herniations also exhibited more advanced disc degeneration as graded by Pearce's criteria (p < 0.01). These results suggest that symptomatic and morphologically matched asymptomatic disc herniations differ with regard to disc matrix composition.