1. Bone loss was assessed by measurement of cortical thickness of metacarpal bone by X-ray and of trabecular bone area in serial bone biopsies in 49 patients with chronic renal failure, six before and 45 during maintenance haemodialysis treatment.
2. Metacarpal cortical measurements (MCM) were very reproducible (coefficient of variation 1·95%), whereas bone area measurements by histology showed great variability. There was no correlation between rates of change of MCM and bone area over the same period, although both tended to fall with time.
3. The mean annual rate of bone loss measured by MCM for patients on dialysis was 2·08 ± 0·32 mm/year (mean ±1 sem) and this rate was not significantly different from the mean rate of loss of 2·49 ± 0·78 mm/year for the six patients who were not on maintenance haemodialysis. 61% of all patients showed a significant decrease during the period of study (1–6 years), but none had symptoms attributable to bone loss.
4. The loss tended to be greatest in women over the age of 40 years. The initial amount of bone and the rate of loss measured by MCM or bone histology were not influenced significantly by the presence or absence of histological or radiological evidence of parathyroid overactivity or of osteomalacia, nor by differences in the causes of renal disease.
5. Loss of metacarpal cortical bone correlated with heparin consumption during haemodialysis in men but not in women. The amount of bone and its rate of loss was not influenced by the presence of an arteriovenous shunt in one arm compared with the other. In neither sex did bone loss correlate with physical activity.
6. A relative deficiency of calcium due to a low dietary calcium intake and intestinal malabsorption of calcium, together with a dialysate calcium of only 1·5 mmol/l, may be more important causes of bone loss in patients in this study.