Abstract Mutations in four of the ten human small heat shock proteins (sHSP) are associated with various forms of motor neuropathies and myopathies. In HspB1, HspB3, and HspB8 all known mutations cause motor neuropathies, whereas in HspB5 they cause myopathies. Several features are common to the majority of these mutations: (i) they are missense mutations, (ii) most associated disease phenotypes exhibit a dominant inheritance pattern and late disease onset, (iii) in the primary protein sequences, the sites of most mutations are located in the conserved α-crystallin domain and the variable C-terminal extensions, and (iv) most human mutation sites are highly conserved among the vertebrate orthologs and have been historically exposed to significant purifying selection. In contrast, a minor fraction of these mutations deviate from these rules: they are (i) frame shifting, nonsense, or elongation mutations, (ii) associated with recessive or early onset disease phenotypes, (iii) positioned in the N-terminal domain of the proteins, and (iv) less conserved among the vertebrates and were historically not subject to a strong selective pressure. In several vertebrate sHSPs (including primate sHSPs), homologous sites differ from the human sequence and occasionally even encode the same amino acid residues that cause the disease in humans. Apparently, a number of these mutations sites are not crucial for the protein function in single species or entire taxa, and single species even seem to have adopted mechanisms that compensate for potentially adverse effects of ‘mutant-like’ sHSPs. The disease-associated dominant sHSP missense mutations have a number of cellular consequences that are consistent with gain-of-function mechanisms of genetic dominance: dominant-negative effects, the formation of cytotoxic amyloid protein oligomers and precipitates, disruption of cytoskeletal networks, and increased downstream enzymatic activities. Future therapeutic concepts should aim for reducing these adverse effects of mutant sHSPs in patients. Indeed, initial experimental results are encouraging.