The conversion of physical signals, such as contractile forces or external mechanical perturbations, into chemical signaling events is a fundamental cellular process that occurs at cell-extracellular matrix contacts, known as focal adhesions. At these sites, transmembrane integrin receptors are associated via their cytoplasmic domains with the actin cytoskeleton. This interaction with actin is mediated by a submembrane plaque, consisting of numerous cytoskeletal and signaling molecules. Application of intrinsic or external forces to these structures dramatically affects their assembly and triggers adhesion-mediated signaling. In this review, we discuss the structure-function relationships of focal adhesions and the possible mode of action of the putative mechanosensor associated with them. We also discuss the general phenomenon of mechanosensitivity, and the approaches used to measure local forces at adhesion sites, the cytoskeleton-mediated regulation of local contractility, and the nature of the signaling networks that both affect contractility and are affected by it.