PURPOSE: To evaluate diffusion-weighted (DW) magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, as compared with turbo spin-echo MR imaging, for the detection of nodal metastases in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). MATERIALS AND METHODS: The study was approved by the ethics committee, and patients gave written informed consent. Before undergoing surgery, 33 consecutive patients underwent 1.5-T MR imaging, including DW imaging performed with a wide range of b values (0-1000 sec/mm(2)). The apparent diffusion coefficients (ADCs) of lymph nodes 4 mm or greater in short-axis diameter depicted on images obtained with b values of 0 and 1000 sec/mm(2) were calculated. After topographic correlation, the lymph nodes were evaluated microscopically with prekeratin immunostaining. The optimal ADC thresholds for discriminating between metastatic and benign lymph nodes were determined. The sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy of DW imaging were calculated separately-on per-lymph-node and per-neck-level bases-for all lymph nodes and for supracentimeter and subcentimeter lymph nodes and were compared with corresponding turbo spin-echo MR imaging values. RESULTS: Correlation of histopathologic and radiologic findings was possible for 301 lymph nodes. The ADC derived from the signal intensity averaged across images obtained with b values of 0 and 1000 sec/mm(2) (ADC(b0-1000)) was 1.19 x 10(-3) mm(2)/sec +/- 0.22 (standard deviation) for benign lymph nodes and 0.85 x 10(-3) mm(2)/sec +/- 0.27 for malignant lymph nodes (P < .0001). With an optimal ADC(b0-1000) threshold of 0.94 x 10(-3) mm(2)/sec, 84% sensitivity, 94% specificity, and 91% accuracy for differentiation of malignant versus benign status of each lymph node and 94% sensitivity, 97% specificity, and 97% accuracy for differentiation at each neck level were achieved. Compared with turbo spin-echo imaging, DW imaging had higher sensitivity (76% vs 7%) but slightly lower specificity (94.0% vs 99.5%) for detection of subcentimeter nodal metastases. CONCLUSION: DW imaging performed with ADC(b0-1000) values had higher accuracy than turbo spin-echo MR imaging in nodal staging, providing added value in the detection of subcentimeter nodal metastases.