Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) is a systemic condition characterized by the ossification and calcification of ligaments and entheses. DISH is observed on all continents and in all races, but most commonly in men over 50 years of age. Although DISH is asymptomatic in most individuals, the condition is often an indicator of underlying metabolic disease, and the presence of spinal or extraspinal ossifications can sometimes lead to symptoms including pain, stiffness, a reduced range of articular motion, and dysphagia, as well as increasing the risk of unstable spinal fractures. The aetiology of DISH is poorly understood, and the roles of the many factors that might be involved in the development of excess bone are not well delineated. The study of pathophysiological aspects of DISH is made difficult by the formal diagnosis requiring the presence of multiple contiguous fully formed bridging ossifications, which probably represent advanced stages of DISH. In this Review, the reader is provided with an up-to-date discussion of the epidemiological, aetiological and clinical aspects of DISH. Existing classification criteria (which, in the absence of diagnostic criteria, are used to establish a diagnosis of DISH) are also considered, together with the need for modified criteria that enable timely identification of early phases in the development of DISH.