It has been postulated that sensorimotor integration is abnormal in dystonia. We investigated changes in motor cortical excitability induced by peripheral stimulation in patients with focal hand dystonia (12 patients with hand cramps) and with cervical dystonia (nine with spasmodic torticollis) compared with 16 age-matched normal controls. Motor evoked potentials (MEP) to focal (figure-of-eight coil) transcranial magnetic stimulation of the hand area were recorded from the right abductor pollicis brevis (APB), first dorsal interosseus (FDI), flexor carpi radialis and extensor carpi radialis muscles. Changes of test MEP size following conditioning stimulation of the right median nerve (or of the index finger) at conditioning-test (C-T) intervals of 50, 200, 600 and 1000 ms were analysed. Peripheral stimulation significantly reduced test MEP size in the APB and FDI muscles of normal control and spasmodic torticollis patients. The inhibitory effect was larger upon median nerve stimulation and reached a maximum at the C-T interval of 200 ms. On the contrary, hand cramp patients showed a significant facilitation of test MEP size. This study suggests that MEP suppression following peripheral stimulation is defective in patients with focal hand dystonia. Central processing of sensory input is abnormal in dystonia and may contribute to increased motor cortical excitability.