Unlike knee plain radiography which can only detect joint space narrowing and osteophytes, magnetic resonance imaging can directly visualize and analyse the whole knee structure, including bone size, cartilage defects and loss of cartilage volume. Tibial subchondral bone area expansion may be primary and is associated with risk factors such as age, body mass index (BMI), genetics and/or limb malalignment. It can lead to the development of knee defects, which may also be caused by demographic, anthropometric and environmental factors such as age, female sex, BMI and smoking as well as structural changes such as osteophytes, bone marrow lesions, meniscal tears, meniscal extrusion and ligament abnormalities. Once knee cartilage defects develop, they have a variable natural history but are associated with subsequent cartilage loss in a dose-response manner. Both tibial subchondral bone area and knee cartilage defects are quantitatively related to the severity of knee osteoarthritis (OA), and predictive of the need for knee joint replacement in subjects with knee OA independent of radiographic change. Taken as a whole, these studies suggest that tibial subchondral bone expansion and cartilage defect development represent important targets for the prevention of cartilage loss and joint replacement.