The effects of prolonged denervation, independent from those of prolonged axotomy, on the recovery of muscle function were examined in a nerve cross-anastomosis paradigm. The tibialis anterior muscle was denervated for various durations by cutting the common peroneal nerve before a freshly cut tibial nerve was cross-sutured to its distal stump. Nerve regeneration and muscle reinnervation were quantified by means of electrophysiological and histochemical methods. Progressively fewer axons reinnervated the muscle with prolonged denervation; for example, beyond 6 months the mean (+/- SE) motor unit number was 15 +/- 4, which was far fewer than that after immediate nerve suture (137 +/- 21). The poor regeneration after prolonged denervation is not due to inability of the long-term denervated muscle to accept reinnervation because each regenerated axon reinnervated three- to fivefold more muscle fibers than normal. Rather, it is due to progressive deterioration of the intramuscular nerve sheaths because the effects of prolonged denervation were simulated by forcing regenerating axons to grow outside the sheaths. Fewer regenerated axons account for reinnervation of less than 50% of the muscle fibers in each muscle and contribute to the progressive decline in muscle force. Reinnervated muscle fibers failed to fully recover from denervation atrophy: muscle fiber cross-sectional area being 1171 +/- 84 microns2 as compared to 2700 +/- 47 microns2 after immediate nerve suture. Thus, the primary cause of the poor recovery after long-term denervation is a profound reduction in the number of axons that successfully regenerate through the deteriorating intramuscular nerve sheaths. Muscle force capacity is further compromised by the incomplete recovery of muscle fibers from denervation atrophy.