To investigate the aetiology of chronic idiopathic axonal polyneuropathy (CIAP), 50 consecutive patients were compared with 50 control subjects from the same region. There were 22 patients with painful neuropathy and 28 without pain, 26 with sensory neuropathy and 24 with sensory and motor neuropathy. The typical picture was a gradually progressive sensory or sensory and motor neuropathy. It caused mild or sometimes moderate disability, and reduced the quality of life. There was no evidence that alcohol, venous insufficiency, arterial disease or antibodies to peripheral nerve antigens played a significant part. There was a possible history of peripheral neuropathy in the first or second-degree relatives of six patients and no controls (P = 0.01), and claw toes were present in 12 patients and four controls (P = 0.03). Thirty-two per cent of the patients and 14% of the controls had impaired glucose tolerance or fasting hyperglycaemia but, after adjusting for age and sex, the difference was not significant (P = 0.45), even in the painful neuropathy subgroup. The mean (SD) fasting insulin concentrations were significantly (P = 0.01) higher in the patients [75.9 (44.4) mmol/l] than the controls [47.3 (37.9) mmol/l], and the mean was higher still in the painful neuropathy subgroup [92.2 (37.1) mmol/l] (P < 0.0001). However, insulin resistance as assessed using the homeostasis model assessment formula was not significantly greater in the patients, even in those with pain, than the controls. After adjustment for body mass index as well as age and sex, there was no significant difference in the serum cholesterol concentrations, but there were significantly higher triglyceride concentrations in the patients [mean 1.90 (1.41) mmol/l] than the controls [mean 1.25 (0.79] mmol/l) (P = 0.02). In the patients with painful peripheral neuropathy, the mean triglyceride concentration was 2.37 (1.72), which was even more significantly greater compared with the controls (P = 0.003). In conclusion, CIAP is a heterogeneous condition. A logistic regression analysis identified environmental toxin exposure and hypertriglyceridaemia, but not glucose intolerance or alcohol overuse as significant risk factors that deserve further investigation as possible causes of CIAP.