The inflammatory myopathies, commonly described as idiopathic, are the largest group of acquired and potentially treatable myopathies. On the basis of unique clinical, histopathological, immunological, and demographic features, they can be differentiated into three major and distinct subsets: dermatomyositis, polymyositis, and inclusion-body myositis. Use of new diagnostic criteria is essential to discriminate between them and to exclude other disorders. Dermatomyositis is a microangiopathy affecting skin and muscle; activation and deposition of complement causes lysis of endomysial capillaries and muscle ischaemia. In polymyositis and inclusion-body myositis, clonally expanded CD8-positive cytotoxic T cells invade muscle fibres that express MHC class I antigens, which leads to fibre necrosis via the perforin pathway. In inclusion-body myositis, vacuolar formation with amyloid deposits coexists with the immunological features. The causative autoantigen has not yet been identified. Upregulated vascular-cell adhesion molecule, intercellular adhesion molecule, chemokines, and their receptors promote T-cell transgression, and various cytokines increase the immunopathological process. Early initiation of therapy is essential, since both polymyositis and dermatomyositis respond to immunotherapeutic agents. New immunomodulatory agents currently being tested in controlled trials may prove promising for difficult cases.