Pyogenic vertebral osteomyelitis (PVO) can be treated most often by medical management. For those failing with medical management, surgical delay can result in increased morbidity. Therefore, the ability to predict failure of medical management on presentation would greatly improve the outcome. This study determines the ability of the presenting magnetic resonance imaging scan to predict failure of nonoperative management at the onset of treatment. A cohort of patients with PVO, initially treated medically, was reviewed. Imaging, demographics, and clinical data of patients successfully treated medically were compared with those ultimately requiring surgical treatment. The extent of signal change on the T1-weighted sagittal images of the affected motion segment was determined for each group. Twenty-two patients were included in the study. Patients successfully treated medically averaged 57%±19% of motion segment involvement, whereas those failing conservative treatment averaged 89%±18%. Using 90% involvement as an indication for initial surgery would have a sensitivity of 78% and specificity of 93%. Patients with thoracolumbar PVO who have 90% or higher involvement of an affected motion segment should be considered for early operative management. © 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.