Connective tissues within the synovial joints are characterized by their dense extracellular matrix and sparse cellularity. With injury or disease, however, tissues commonly experience an influx of cells owing to proliferation and migration of endogenous mesenchymal cell populations, as well as invasion of the tissue by other cell types, including immune cells. Although this process is critical for successful wound healing, aberrant immune-mediated cell infiltration can lead to pathological inflammation of the joint. Importantly, cells of mesenchymal or haematopoietic origin use distinct modes of migration and thus might respond differently to similar biological cues and microenvironments. Furthermore, cell migration in the physiological microenvironment of musculoskeletal tissues differs considerably from migration in vitro. This Review addresses the complexities of cell migration in fibrous connective tissues from three separate but interdependent perspectives: physiology (including the cellular and extracellular factors affecting 3D cell migration), pathophysiology (cell migration in the context of synovial joint autoimmune disease and injury) and tissue engineering (cell migration in engineered biomaterials). Improved understanding of the fundamental mechanisms governing interstitial cell migration might lead to interventions that stop invasion processes that culminate in deleterious outcomes and/or that expedite migration to direct endogenous cell-mediated repair and regeneration of joint tissues.