Rodent models of nerve injury have increased our understanding of peripheral nerve regeneration, but clinical applications have been scarce, partly because such models do not adequately recapitulate the situation in humans. In human injuries, axons are often required to extend over much longer distances than in mice, and injury leaves distal nerve fibres and target tissues without axonal contact for extended amounts of time. Distal Schwann cells undergo atrophy owing to the lack of contact with proximal neurons, which results in reduced expression of neurotrophic growth factors, changes in the extracellular matrix and loss of Schwann cell basal lamina, all of which hamper axonal extension. Furthermore, atrophy and denervation-related changes in target tissues make good functional recovery difficult to achieve even when axons regenerate all the way to the target tissue. To improve functional outcomes in humans, strategies to increase the speed of axonal growth, maintain Schwann cells in a healthy, repair-capable state and keep target tissues receptive to reinnervation are needed. Use of rodent models of chronic denervation will facilitate our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of peripheral nerve regeneration and create the potential to test therapeutic advances.