The human spinal cord contains segregated sensory and motor pathways that have been difficult to quantify using conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques. Multiple sclerosis is characterized by both focal and spatially diffuse spinal cord lesions with heterogeneous pathologies that have limited attempts at linking MRI and behaviour. We used a novel magnetization-transfer-weighted imaging approach to quantify damage to spinal white matter columns and tested its association with sensorimotor impairment. We studied 42 participants with multiple sclerosis who each underwent MRI at 3 Tesla and quantitative tests of sensorimotor function. We measured cerebrospinal-fluid-normalized magnetization-transfer signals in the dorsal and lateral columns and grey matter of the cervical cord. We also measured brain lesion volume, cervical spinal cord lesion number and cross-sectional area, vibration sensation, strength, walking velocity and standing balance. We used linear regression to assess the relationship between sensorimotor impairment and MRI abnormalities. We found that the dorsal column cerebrospinal-fluid-normalized magnetization-transfer signal specifically correlated with vibration sensation (R = 0.58, P < 0.001) and the lateral column signal with strength (R = −0.45, P = 0.003). Spinal cord signal measures also correlated with walking and balance dysfunction. A stepwise multiple regression showed that the dorsal column signal and diagnosis subtype alone explained a significant portion of the variance in sensation (R2 = 0.54, P < 0.001), whereas the lateral column signal and diagnosis subtype explained a significant portion of the variance in strength (R2 = 0.30, P < 0.001). These results help to understand the anatomic basis of sensorimotor disability in multiple sclerosis and have implications for testing the effects of neuroprotective and reparative interventions.