The aim of the present study was to conduct a meta-analysis of English literature on the accuracy of preoperative imaging in predicting the two most important risk factors for local recurrence in rectal cancer, the circumferential resection margin (CRM) and the nodal status (N-status). Articles published between 1985 and August 2004 that report on the diagnostic accuracy of endoluminal ultrasound (EUS), computed tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the evaluation of lymph node involvement were included. A similar search was done for the assessment of the circumferential resection margin in rectal cancer in the period from January 1985 till January 2005. The inclusion criteria were as follows: (1) more than 20 patients with histologically proven rectal cancer were included, (2) histology was used as the gold standard, and (3) results were given in a 2 x 2 contingency table or this table could otherwise be extracted from the article by two independent readers. Based on the results summary receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves were constructed. Only 7 articles matching inclusion criteria were found concerning the CRM. The meta-analysis shows that MRI is rather accurate in diagnosing a close or involved CRM. For nodal status 84 articles could be included. The diagnostic odds ratio of EUS is estimated at 8.83. For MRI and CT, the diagnostic odds ratio are 6.53 and 5.86, respectively. The results show that EUS is slightly, but not significantly, better than MRI or CT for identification of nodal disease. There is no significant difference between the different modalities with respect to staging nodal status. At present, MRI is the only modality that predicts the circumferential resection margin with good accuracy, making it a good tool to identify high and low risk patients. Predicting the N-status remains a problem for the radiologist for every modality, although considering the new developments in MR imaging, this may change in the near future.