'Shock wave' therapies are now extensively used in the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries. This systematic review summarises the evidence base for the use of these modalities. A thorough search of the literature was performed to identify studies of adequate quality to assess the evidence base for shockwave therapies on pain in specific soft tissue injuries. Both focused extracorporeal shockwave therapy (F-ESWT) and radial pulse therapy (RPT) were examined. 23 appropriate studies were identified. There is evidence for the benefit of F-ESWT and of RPT in a number of soft tissue musculoskeletal conditions, and evidence that both treatment modalities are safe. There is evidence that F-ESWT is effective in the treatment of plantar fasciitis, calcific tendinitis, and that RPT is effective in plantar fasciitis. Where benefit is seen in F-ESWT, it appears to be dose dependent, with greater success seen with higher dose regimes. There is low level evidence for lack of benefit of low-dose F-ESWT and RPT in non-calcific rotator cuff disease and mixed evidence in lateral epicondylitis. Published by the BMJ Publishing Group Limited. For permission to use (where not already granted under a licence) please go to http://group.bmj.com/group/rights-licensing/permissions.