Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is increasingly used for preoperative counseling and planning, and intraoperative guidance for tumor resection in the eloquent cortex. Although there have been improvements in image resolution and artifact correction, there are still limitations of this modality. In this review, we discuss clinical fMRI's applications, limitations and potential solutions. These limitations depend on the following parameters: foundations of fMRI, physiologic effects of the disease, distinctions between clinical and research fMRI, and the design of the fMRI study. We also compare fMRI to other brain mapping modalities which should be considered as alternatives or adjuncts when appropriate, and discuss intraoperative use and validation of fMRI. These concepts direct the clinical application of fMRI in neurosurgical patients.