Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) is a common but little-studied disorder in the elderly that is infrequently recognized by physicians. Its prevalence in adults over 40 years of age is estimated at 3.8% for men and 2.6% for women. The present case-control study evaluated the history of pain and stiffness, radicular pain and enthesitis, physical findings on the musculoskeletal examination, and level of physical and psychologic disability in 130 persons: 56 patients with DISH, 43 control patients with spondylosis of the lumbar spine, and 31 healthy control patients. DISH patients were more likely to report a past history of upper extremity pain, medial epicondylitis of the elbow, enthesitis of the patella or heel, or dysphagia than spondylosis patients. They had more extremity and spinal stiffness and pain than healthy controls. DISH patients weighed more at a young age and their body mass index was greater at the time of the clinical evaluation than either spondylosis or healthy control patients. On musculoskeletal examination, DISH patients had a greater reduction in neck rotation and thoracic movements than either spondylosis patients or healthy controls, and had a greater reduction in lumbar movement than healthy controls. DISH patients had similar levels of spinal disability and physical disability overall, as measured by standardized indices, as spondylosis patients. No differences were found among the 3 groups of patients for the laboratory tests evaluated. DISH is clearly a distinct disorder with signs and symptoms that distinguish it from other causes of spinal complaint and from healthy individuals. It has the potential to cause major disability. Future studies need to address the natural history of DISH, pursue pathogenic mechanisms, and evaluate treatment modalities.