Musculoskeletal conditions are extremely common and include more than 150 different diseases and syndromes, which are usually associated with pain and loss of function. In the developed world, where these conditions are already the most frequent cause of physical disability, ageing of the most populous demographic groups will further increase the burden these conditions impose. In the developing world, successful care of childhood and communicable diseases and an increase in road traffic accidents is shifting the burden to musculoskeletal and other noncommunicable conditions. To help better prepare nations for the increase in disability brought about by musculoskeletal conditions, a Scientific Group meeting was held to map out the burden of the most prominent musculoskeletal conditions at the start of the Bone and Joint Decade. In particular, the Group gathered data on the incidence and prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, major limb trauma and spinal disorders. Data were collected and organized by world region, gender and age groups to assist with the ongoing WHO Global Burden of Disease 2000 study. The Group also considered what is known about the severity and course of these conditions, along with their economic impact. The most relevant domains to assess and monitor the consequences of these conditions were identified and used to describe health states for the different stages of the conditions. Instruments that measure these most important domains for the different conditions were recommended. It is clear from data collated that the impact from musculoskeletal conditions and trauma varies among different parts of the world and is influenced by social structure, expectation and economics, and that it is most difficult to measure impact in less developed nations, where the predicted increase is greatest.