Dystonia is a clinical syndrome with sustained muscle contraction, twisting, and abnormal postures. A number of different genetic forms have been defined, but most cases are sporadic in nature and of uncertain cause. Relatively few cases of dystonia have been studied pathologically. In primary dystonias, where dystonia is the main symptom, most reports describe little or no detectable neuropathology, although changes in brainstem neurons have been described in some cases. Secondary dystonias are associated with degenerative or destructive diseases of the nervous system; the pathology may be located in the basal ganglia, but in some cases the primary pathological changes are found in the cerebellum or cerebellar outflow pathways, suggesting that both regions may be involved in the pathogenesis of dystonic symptoms. Overall the number of well-documented pathological cases available for study is few, and there is an urgent need for additional postmortem studies. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled "Advances in dystonia".