Pain in the forearm, wrist or hand may arise from one of several discrete rheumatic disorders of soft tissues, such as tenosynovitis, or from a non-specific regional pain syndrome. Symptoms are prevalent in the general population and both patterns of illness are well represented. Many epidemiological investigations of prevalence, incidence, causal risk factors, management and prevention exist, although surveys have used a wide variety of case definitions, hampering comparisons. Improved standardized approaches to classification are in prospect and these are described. A synthesis is also attempted of the main findings of existing surveys. A growing body of evidence now links distal arm pain with physical risk factors in the workplace (e.g. repetition, force, duration, short cycle time and awkwardness of posture); some possible ergonomic solutions to occupational arm pain are discussed. But occupational and psychosocial factors are also linked with symptom reporting and disability, and their role in pathogenesis may be important in primary prevention and the management of recalcitrant cases. Some key research questions are proposed aimed at preventing chronicity and disablement from arm pain.