Radical neck dissection was the golden standard of treatment for cervical nodes in head and neck tumors. From the seventies, the preservation of the spinal accessory nerve has become increasingly popular in order to improve the functional result of the neck dissections. The aim of this study was to assess the degree of functional disability associated with each type of neck dissection and the value of anatomical references for dissection of the spinal accessory nerve. One hundred twenty seven patients were evaluated 1 month and 1 year after radical, functional or supraomohyoid neck dissection with a questionnaire and a physical examination. Anatomical measurements of the spinal accessory nerve were performed in 20 patients. We found considerable or severe shoulder dysfunction in 7%, 34% and 51% respectively of patients in whom supraomohyoid, functional and radical neck dissections were performed. Furthermore 49% of patients having undergone a radical neck dissection had little or no symptoms. Sacrifice of the spinal accessory nerve in radical neck dissection may lead to shoulder dysfunction. A functional disability may also be associated, although in a less extent, with any neck dissection in which the spinal accessory nerve is dissected and placed in traction. There is a large variation in the degree of functional disability and pain in patients with similar neck dissections. The course of the spinal accessory nerve in the neck makes it particularly vulnerable to injury during the dissection near the sternocleidomastoid muscle and in the posterior cervical triangle.