The orientation of the lumbar facet joints was studied with magnetic resonance imaging in 140 subjects to determine if there is an association between facet tropism and intervertebral disc disease or between the orientation of the facet joints and degenerative spondylolisthesis. The 140 subjects were divided into four groups: sixty-seven asymptomatic volunteers, forty-six of whom did not have a herniated disc on magnetic resonance scans (Group 1) and twenty-one who did (Group II); forty-six symptomatic patients who had a herniated disc confirmed operatively (Group III); and twenty-seven patients who had degenerative spondylolisthesis at the interspace between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae (Group IV). Axial scans were made at each lumbar level and digitized, and the facet joint angle was measured by two independent observers with use of image analysis software in a personal computer. The technique of measurement of the facet angles on magnetic resonance scans was validated with a subset of subjects who also had computed tomography scans made. Similar values were obtained with the two methods (r = 0.92; p = 0.00001). For the forty-six asymptomatic volunteers who did not have a herniated disc on the magnetic resonance scans (Group 1), the median facet tropism was 5 to 6 degrees and was more than 10 degrees in 24 per cent (eleven) of the subjects. There was no association between increased facet tropism and disc degeneration. At the level of the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae, the median facet tropism was 10.3 degrees in the symptomatic patients who had a herniated disc at the same level and 5.4 degrees in the asymptomatic volunteers (Group I) (p = 0.05). The mean orientation of the lumbar facet angles relative to the coronal plane was more sagittal at all levels in the patients who had degenerative spondylolisthesis. The greatest difference was at the level of the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae (p = 0.000001). The mean facet angle was 41 degrees (95 per cent confidence interval, 37.6 to 44.6 degrees) in the asymptomatic volunteers and 60 degrees (95 per cent confidence interval, 52.7 to 67.1 degrees) in the patients who had degenerative spondylolisthesis. Furthermore, both the left and the right facet joints were more sagittally oriented in the patients who had degenerative spondylolisthesis. An individual in whom both facet-joint angles at the level of the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae were more than 45 degrees relative to the coronal plane was twenty-five times more likely to have degenerative spondylolisthesis (95 per cent confidence interval, seven to ninety-eight times). The increase in facet angles at levels other than that of the spondylolisthesis suggests that increased facet angles represent variations in anatomy rather than a secondary result of spondylolisthesis.