The objective of this study was to determine the degree of muscle wasting of various components of the quadriceps muscle in children with a painful hip. Between January 1994 and September 1997, 327 consecutive children with a unilateral painful hip and/or limping were evaluated prospectively with ultrasonography. Quadriceps thickness was measured on both sides. Moreover, muscle thickness was measured in 59 control subjects. The patients were divided into eight groups; transient synovitis (n = 134), Perthes' disease (n = 35), slipped capital femoral epiphysis (n = 5), osteomyelitis (n = 4), aspecific synovitis (n = 5), rheumatoid arthritis (n = 3) and miscellaneous (n = 16). In 125 patients, no sonographic and radiological abnormalities were found and during follow-up the symptoms disappeared ('no pathology' group). Ipsilateral muscle wasting was present in all patient groups, whereas the control subjects showed no significant difference in muscle thickness between legs. The degree of muscle wasting was compared between transient synovitis, the 'no pathology' group, Perthes' disease and control subjects. For both quadriceps and vastus intermedius muscles, there was a significant difference between these groups, except between control subjects and the 'no pathology' group. For the rectus femoris muscle, there was a significant difference between these groups, except between transient synovitis and 'no pathology'. Muscle wasting showed a positive correlation with duration of symptoms and pre-existing muscle mass. In conclusion, different diseases show different degrees of muscle wasting, and there are different patterns of muscle wasting of various components of the quadriceps femoris muscle.