Membrane microparticles are submicron fragments of membrane shed into extracellular space from cells under conditions of stress/injury. They may be distinguished from other classes of extracellular vesicles (i.e. exosomes) on the basis of size, content and mechanism of formation. Microparticles are found in plasma and other biological fluids from healthy individuals and their levels are altered in various diseases, including diabetes, chronic kidney disease, pre-eclampsia and hypertension among others. Accordingly, they have been considered biomarkers of vascular injury and pro-thrombotic or pro-inflammatory conditions. In addition to this, emerging evidence suggests that microparticles are not simply a consequence of disease, but that they themselves may contribute to pathological processes. Thus microparticles appear to serve as both markers and mediators of pathology. The present review examines the evidence for microparticles as both biomarkers of, and contributors to, the progression of disease. Approaches for the detection of microparticles are summarized and novel concepts relating to the formation of microparticles and their biological effects are examined.