Articles describing motor function in five chronic musculoskeletal pain conditions (temporomandibular disorders, muscle tension headache, fibromyalgia, chronic lower back pain, and postexercise muscle soreness) were reviewed. It was concluded that the data do not support the commonly held view that the pain of these conditions is maintained by some form of tonic muscular hyperactivity. Instead, it seems clear that in these conditions the activity of agonist muscles is often reduced by pain, even when this does not arise from the muscle itself. On the other hand, pain causes small increases in the level of activity of the antagonist. As a consequence of these changes, force production and the range and velocity of movement of the affected body part are often reduced. To explain how such changes in the behaviour come about, we propose a neurophysiological model based on the phasic modulation of excitatory and inhibitory interneurons supplied by high-threshold sensory afferents. We suggest that the "dysfunction" that is characteristic of several types of chronic musculoskeletal pain is a normal protective adaptation and is not a cause of pain.