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Accessory nerve injury produces considerable disability. The nerve is most frequently damaged as a complication of radical neck dissection, cervical lymph node biopsy and other surgical procedures. The problem is frequently compounded by a failure to recognise the error immediately after surgery when surgical repair has the greatest chance of success. We present cases which outline the risk of accessory nerve injury, the spectrum of clinical presentations and the problems produced by a failure to recognise the deficit. Regional anatomy, consequences of nerve damage and management options are discussed. Diagnostic biopsy of neck nodes should not be undertaken as a primary investigation and, when indicated, surgery in this region should be performed by suitably trained staff under well-defined conditions. Awareness of iatrogenic injury and its consequences would avoid delays in diagnosis and treatment.