A knowledge of the alteration in the fibre type profile of paraspinal muscle associated with low back pain is essential for the design of successful rehabilitation programmes. In attempting to compare the muscles of patients with low back pain with those of controls, few previous studies have considered factors such as gender, age, and size of the subjects, each of which can potentially confound interpretation of the results. We obtained samples of lumbar paraspinal muscle during spinal surgery from 21 patients with low back pain and, using the percutaneous biopsy technique, from 21 control volunteers matched for gender, age, and body mass. The samples were subject to routine histochemical analysis to determine characteristics of muscle fibre type. Compared with controls, the muscle of the patients had a significantly higher proportion of type-IIB (fast-twitch glycolytic) fibres than type-I (slow oxidative) fibres. The mean size of a given fibre type did not differ between the patients and the controls. Consequently, the relative area of the muscle occupied by type-IIB fibres was higher and that by type-I fibres was lower in the patients. The patients had a greater number of muscle samples with more than 1% type-IIC fibres, and abnormalities that could be described as pathological were more marked in the patients than in the controls. In conclusion, the paraspinal muscles of patients who have low back pain display a more glycolytic (faster) profile; this can be expected to render them less resistant to fatigue.