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The syndrome of 'benign thoracic pain' is seen in young women who have pain and tenderness in the mid-thoracic spine radiating around the chest and aggravated by spinal movement. Ten consecutive patients with this syndrome and 15 controls were evaluated with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This showed thoracic intervertebral disc dehydration with no associated prolapse in 90% of the patients and 13% of the controls. We postulate that the clinical features are due to impaired shock absorption of these degenerate discs rather than direct compression of surrounding structures. MRI is non-invasive and does not use ionizing radiation; it allows direct visualization of the entire thoracic spine and cord, and accurate detection of early disc degeneration. Thus, it is the imaging modality of choice for defining the subtle intervertebral disc abnormalities that characterize the 'benign thoracic pain' syndrome.