Hyperthyroidism is accompanied by significant dysfunction of both proximal and distal skeletal muscles. The purpose of this study was to quantitate the degree of muscle weakness in newly diagnosed patients with Graves' disease and to assess the response to treatment. Ten patients were prospectively studied with objective measures of strength and endurance of proximal and distal muscles while hyperthyroid (stage I), after 2 weeks of propranolol (stage II), and about 6 months later when euthyroid (stage III). Propranolol treatment for 2 weeks resulted in a subjective decrease in weakness, which was accompanied by a statistically significant improvement in grip strength (P less than 0.01), shoulder strength (P less than 0.02), and grip endurance (P less than 0.01) but not shoulder endurance. Muscle function further improved and attained control levels when the patients were chemically and clinically euthyroid. In contrast, a control group subjected to the same muscle testing protocol before and after 1 week of propranolol treatment showed no improvement in grip, shoulder strength, or shoulder endurance but had decreased grip endurance (P less than 0.01) and increased subjective weakness. These results confirm that muscle weakness commonly is associated with hyperthyroidism and can be quantitatively profound. In contrast to the effects of beta-blockade in normal controls, propranolol partially improves muscle weakness in thyrotoxic patients. We conclude that thyroid hormone and catecholamines in concert mediate the muscle dysfunction of hyperthyroidism.