Over the last two decades, MRI has emerged as an important clinical tool to assist in the diagnosis and management of rheumatic disease. In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), MRI has improved our understanding of the pathological basis of disease and has provided new information about imaging features that reflect joint inflammation and damage. Using MRI, we can now directly observe inflammation involving the synovial membrane and tenosynovium, plus joint damage including bone erosion and cartilage thinning. Inflammation of bone beneath the joint (osteitis) appears as bone oedema which is a feature unique to MRI and yields important diagnostic and prognostic information in patients with inflammatory arthritis. With the introduction of biologics to rheumatology clinical practice, sensitive tools are required to monitor disease activity and progression, so that the disease suppressing effect of these new agents can be measured. MRI fits the bill for this role as it can inform the clinician about the development of bone erosions well before plain radiography, and its ability to reveal cartilage damage is emerging. The use of MRI as a marker of outcome in clinical trials is being paralleled by its increasing role in the clinic. Both extremity and high field MRI have clinical applications in RA and need to be considered along with other advanced imaging techniques as useful tools to add to the clinician's armamentarium. This review will summarise recent advances in this field and will apply current knowledge to specific clinical scenarios relevant to modern rheumatology practice.
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