OBJECTIVES: Cervical spine disorders are common in the older population. The paravertebral muscles are essential to the support and stabilisation of the cervical spine but have been little studied. The aim was to determine whether pathological changes develop in these muscles in patients with severe cervical spine disease, which, if present, might contribute to the pathogenesis and symptomatology of their disorder. METHODS: Open biopsies of superficial and deep paravertebral muscles were obtained during the course of surgical procedures to alleviate cervical myelopathy. Most of these patients had cervical spondylosis or rheumatoid arthritis involving the cervical spine. The biopsies were compared with muscle obtained at necropsy from patients without a history of cervical spine or neuromuscular disorder. RESULTS: Muscle from both the study and control groups showed a similar range and severity of abnormalities. In several patients, grouped fibre atrophy suggested chronic partial denervation. Most biopsies showed type 1 fibre predominance and selective type 2 fibre atrophy. Ragged red fibres were a frequent finding and electron microscopy disclosed accumulations of mitochondria, a small proportion of which contained rounded, or longitudinally oriented, single osmiophilic inclusions. Fibres containing core-like areas were also frequent. These pathological features were seen with increasing severity and frequency with increasing age. CONCLUSIONS: The paravertebral cervical muscles develop pathological abnormalities with increasing age with both neurogenic and myopathic features, the pathogenesis of which is probably multifactorial. Such a muscle disorder would be expected to be accompanied by functional impairment which may contribute to the development and symptomatology of cervical spine disease with increasing age.