Parathyroid hormone (PTH) increases trabecular but may decrease cortical bone mass during treatment of postmenopausal osteoporosis. In a 2-year trial, PTH, with or without sequential calcitonin (CT), was given to 29 osteoporotic women (mean age 67 +/- 7 years), in 3-month cycles [28 days hPTH(1-34), 50 microg/day, +/-42 days CT, 75 units/day, 20 days "free"]. Over 2 years, lumbar spine bone mineral density measurements increased an average of 10%. Paired iliac crest biopsies were obtained 28 days and 2 years after starting the trial. The addition of CT made no difference to changes seen with cyclical PTH alone. Thus, the histomorphometric analyses for all 29 treated patients were compared with a separate group of biopsies from untreated osteoporotic control patients (n = 15). No significant increments in total bone volume or trabecular architecture were seen over 2 years of cyclical PTH treatment, although the light microscopic appearance of bone was normal. At the level of the bone remodeling unit, a twofold increase in total trabecular erosion surface over the control measurements was observed within the first 28 days of PTH treatment (10 +/- 5 vs. 5 +/- 3% trabecular surface, p < 0.01), which was sustained over 2 years. Trabecular bone formation rates (surface referent) were 11 +/- 7 microm(3)/microm(2)/year in control patients and threefold higher in treated patients both acutely (31 +/- 31 microm(3)/microm(2)/year, p < 0.01) and after 2 years (33 +/- 43 microm(3)/microm(2)/year, p < 0. 05). The activation frequency of trabecular remodeling was threefold higher than controls through 2 years of treatment (p < 0.05). The mean wall thickness of completed osteons after 2 years of treatment was significantly larger than controls (28 +/- 7 vs. 22 +/- 5 microm, p < 0.01), suggesting a positive remodeling balance, as well as the histomorphometric evidence of increased bone turnover and the increased resorption surfaces. Over 2 years of cyclical PTH therapy, cortical thickness remained significantly higher than controls (680 +/- 202 vs 552 +/- 218 microm, p < 0.05), without significant changes in cortical porosity. Thus, the histomorphometric changes during cyclical PTH therapy in patients with severe osteoporosis are consistent with increased trabecular bone turnover and a positive remodeling balance, with no evidence for detrimental changes in cortical bone.