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To examine the relative change in utilization of magnetic resonance (MR) imaging of the extremities versus diagnostic and therapeutic arthroscopy.Using the 1993, 1996, and 1999 nationwide Medicare Part B databases, utilization rates (per 100,000) were determined for upper and lower extremity MR imaging, diagnostic arthroscopy and therapeutic arthroscopy using CPT-4 codes. Utilization of extremity MR imaging was compared with that of diagnostic and therapeutic arthroscopy in 10 geographic regions of the United States and tracked over time.Combined lower and upper extremity MR imaging utilization per 100,000 increased from 393 to 1,056 in 1999 (+168.7%). Utilization of diagnostic arthroscopy of the extremities decreased from 18 in 1993 to 8 in 1999 (-55.6%); therapeutic arthroscopy rates increased from 461 in 1993 to 636 in 1999 (+40.0%). Specifically, from 1993 to 1999, utilization of lower extremity MR imaging increased from 270 to 661 (+144.8%). Utilization of diagnostic arthroscopy of the knee over the same time period decreased from 11 to 5 (-54.5%); therapeutic arthroscopy increased from 394 to 501 (+27.2%). Similarly, utilization rates for upper extremity MR imaging increased from 123 to 395 (+221.1%). Utilization of diagnostic arthroscopy of the shoulder over the same time period decreased from 7 to 2 (-71.4%); therapeutic arthroscopy increased from 44 to 104 (+136.4%). No specific geographic trends were ascertained.The utilization of MR imaging of the extremities has markedly increased from 1993 to 1999. During the same time period the utilization of diagnostic arthroscopy has decreased and that of therapeutic arthroscopy has increased. These findings support the hypothesis that there is increased reliance of clinical practitioners on the diagnostic information provided by MR imaging in preoperative clinical decision-making.