The aim of the study was to compare histological findings in limb and respiratory muscles from control subjects and patients with heart failure of two different aetiologies. Biopsies of the quadriceps femoris, strap, diaphragm and pectoralis major muscles were taken from each group. The control subjects all had normal left ventricular function, and comprised seven undergoing surgical ablation of electrical pathways and 10 undergoing coronary artery surgery. The heart failure group had severely impaired left ventricular function, and were undergoing cardiac transplantation in all except one case. Ten patients with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy and seven with heart failure of ischaemic origin were studied. Conventional histochemical techniques and specific anti-myosin immunofluorescent stains were used. There were no consistent differences in fibre type prevalence or diameter between the groups. There were no important histological abnormalities in the two control groups. There were minor/major changes in four of seven patients with ischaemic heart failure but no major abnormality, whilst in the dilated cardiomyopathy group there were five of 10 patients with minor/major changes and three of 10 with major abnormalities (P < 0.001 vs controls). A variety of changes were seen in both groups of heart failure subjects. These were more marked in the dilated cardiomyopathy than ischaemic group, and suggest the presence of fibre type regeneration and/or transformation. Amongst the findings were tubular aggregates, internalization of nuclei, bizzare staining of myosin and staining of neonatal myosin (seven of 14) and the presence of cores (five of 14). Such changes were more prominent in the diaphragm than in the other muscles. In conclusion, histological abnormalities are present in the limb and respiratory muscles from subjects with heart failure. The changes are most marked in subjects with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, suggesting that there may be a generalized cardiac and skeletal myopathy in these subjects. The presence of histological abnormalities in the respiratory muscles may contribute to the pathogenesis of dyspnoea in heart failure.