We studied the clinical, electrophysiological, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) features of 20 patients with chronic unilateral optic neuropathy (CUON): progressive unilateral visual failure lasting a minimum of 6 months. The patients, 10 male and 10 female, ranged in age from 12 to 77 years (mean 44) and had a mean duration of symptoms of 22 months. All had signs of optic nerve dysfunction. Each patient was studied with MRI using a short TI inversion recovery (STIR) sequence to delineate the optic nerve from surrounding orbital tissue. Three distinct groups of patients with CUON were identified using MRI. In the first group (8/20) the optic nerve was compressed by an extrinsic mass, whereas in the second group (5/20) CUON resulted from an intrinsic tumor of the optic nerve or sheath. In both groups STIR sequences compared favorably with computed tomography in identifying mass lesions. MRI was superior in delineating distortion of the optic nerve by mass or tumor extension beyond the orbit. In the third group (7/20) no mass was evident on MRI. However, STIR sequences revealed altered signal (long T1) in clinically symptomatic nerves. In 4 of the patients T2-weighted cerebral MRI disclosed periventricular lesions suggestive of disseminated white matter disease. We conclude that MRI complements clinical and electrophysiological testing in the assessment of CUON.