New MRI techniques have been developed to assess not only the static anatomy of synovial hyperplasia, bone changes and cartilage degradation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but also the activity of the physiological events that cause these changes. This enables an estimation of the rate of change in the synovium, bone and cartilage as a result of disease activity or in response to therapy. Typical MRI signs of RA in the pre-erosive phase include synovitis, bone marrow edema and subchondral cyst formation. Synovitis can be assessed by T2-weighted imaging, dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI or diffusion tensor imaging. Bone marrow edema can be detected on fluid-sensitive sequences such as short-tau inversion recovery or T2-weighted fast-spin echo sequences. Detection of small bone erosions in the early erosive phase using T1-weighted MRI has sensitivity comparable to CT. Numerous MRI techniques have been developed for quantitative assessment of potentially pathologic changes in cartilage composition that occur before frank morphologic changes. In this Review, we summarize the advances and new directions in the field of MRI, with an emphasis on their current state of development and application in RA. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.