Background Previous research has indicated neck-shoulder disorders to have a fluctuating course incorporating a variety of symptoms. These findings awoke our interest to make a comparison between symptoms experienced by people affected with the disorder and the content of questionnaires that assess pain and other symptoms in neck-shoulder disorders. Thus the aims of this study were: -to explore the symptoms experienced by people with non-specific neck-shoulder problems, as well as experiences of nuances and temporal variations (fluctuations) of symptoms; -to investigate which sources were used in the development of ten questionnaires for assessing pain and other symptoms in the neck-shoulder; -to analyse the item content of the questionnaires; -to analyse the correspondence between the item content of the questionnaires and the symptoms described by the informants. Methods Content analysis of interviews with 40 people with non-specific neck-shoulder pain, and 10 questionnaires used to assess pain and other symptoms in neck-shoulder disorders. Results The interviews revealed a variety of symptoms indicating a bodily, mental/cognitive, and emotional engagement, and more general and severe symptoms than are usually considered in neck-shoulder questionnaires. Taking all questionnaires together many of the symptoms were considered, but most questionnaires only included a few of them. The informants were able to distinguish fluctuation of symptoms, and a variety of different qualities which were not usually considered in the questionnaires. Only two questionnaires had made use of the opinions of affected people in the development. Conclusion Few of the questionnaires had made use of the experiences of affected people in the development. The correspondence between the symptoms expressed by those affected and the content of the questionnaires was low. A variety of symptoms were expressed by the interviewees, and the participants were also able to distinguish nuances and fluctuations of symptoms. The present study points to the importance of other aspects than just pain and physical functioning as clinical trial outcome measures related to neck-shoulder disorders. To develop a condition-specific questionnaire, it is important to decide on the specific symptoms for the condition. Using the experiences of those affected, in combination with relevant research and professional knowledge, can enhance the validity of the questionnaires.