Inflammasomes are key inducers of inflammation in response to exogenous and endogenous stimuli, because they regulate the processing and secretion of the proinflammatory cytokines IL-1β and IL-18. Thus, inflammasomes have a crucial role in host defence against infection, but they can also be involved in inflammatory diseases. Indeed, the NLRP3 (NOD-, LRR- and pyrin domain-containing 3) inflammasome has been shown to play a part in several inflammatory rheumatic disorders, although the mechanisms involved are better elucidated in some of these diseases than in others. In particular, the pathogenesis of cryopyrin-associated periodic syndromes and microcrystal-induced arthritides is thought to be dependent on activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome, and IL-1 inhibition has shown efficacy as a therapeutic strategy in both groups of conditions. In this Review, we describe the current understanding of the mechanisms that trigger the inflammasome, and consider the relevance of the inflammasome to a variety of rheumatic diseases. In addition, we discuss the current therapies targeting this molecular complex, as well as future therapeutic prospects.