Many studies have documented an association between chronic low back pain (LBP) and deficits in back muscle strength and endurance. The sub-optimal performance is believed to be the result of alterations in the size and structure of the muscle, although the long-standing issue of whether the observed changes precede or are a consequence of the pain remains unresolved. If consequent to the problem, and predominantly related to disuse of the muscles, then it may be expected that a relationship between muscle structure and symptom duration would exist. Lumbar paraspinal muscle samples were obtained from 59 chronic LBP patients using the percutaneous biopsy technique. The samples were subject to routine histochemical analysis for the examination of muscle fibre type characteristics and cytochemical architectural changes. In 55 of the patients, the gross cross-sectional areas of magnetic resonance images of the trunk muscles were also measured. Multivariate analysis showed that symptom duration was the strongest predictor of the individual proportions of the fast-fatigable type IIX fibres; with age and gender included in the model, nearly 30% of the variance in fibre type distribution could be accounted for. Duration of pain had no influence on fibre size. Gross muscle cross-sectional area correlated directly with lean body mass and inversely with age, but showed no relationship with symptom duration. Pathological changes in the internal fibre structure were more frequently encountered in older patients, and were independent of symptom duration. The results suggest that, over the long term, fibre type transformations rather than alterations in fibre size are the predominant changes to be found in the muscles of chronic LBP patients. The direction of change supports the results of many previous studies that have demonstrated corresponding differences in the fatigability of the muscles. There is a strong case for the early implementation of active measures to attempt to offset the development of these changes in back pain patients.