A multicentre observational study was conducted by the Italian Association of Nuclear Medicine between 1996 and 1998. Twenty-nine Nuclear Medicine Departments participated. The aims of the study were to systematically evaluate the efficacy, toxicity and repeatability of radionuclide therapy of painful bone metastases (RTBM) in a large number of patients and to assess its incidence in patients with prostate cancer. Out of 818 treatments performed with a single i.v. dose of 148 MBq of strontium-89 chloride or 1,295 MBq of rhenium-186 hydroxyethylidene diphosphonate (HEDP), 610 could be evaluated (527 with 89Sr and 83 with 186Re-HEDP). Eighty-one patients received multiple (up to five) RTBM. The total number of retreatments was 100. Patients were followed up for a period of 3-24 months. Results, assessed according to pain relief and consumption of analgesic drugs, were expressed at four levels: 1, no response; 2, mild response; 3, good response; 4, excellent response. Responses were: level 1 in 19%, level 2 in 21.3%, level 3 in 33.3% and level 4 in 26.4% of cases. Retreatments showed significantly (P<0.01) worse responses (48% levels 3+4), in comparison to first RTBM. Duration of palliation was 5.0+/-3.5 months, and was longer in cases of excellent response, in first RTBM, in patients with limited metastases and when 89Sr was used. Better responses were found in cases of limited skeletal disease, under good clinical conditions, when life expectancy exceeded 3 months, and in radiologically osteoblastic or mixed bone lesions. The only statistically significant predictive factor was life expectancy (P<0.001). Flare phenomenon (14.1% of cases) did not correlate with the response. Haematological toxicity (mild to moderate in most cases) mainly affected platelets, and was observed in 25.5% of cases overall and in 38.9% of retreatments. RTBM did not seem to prolong life, though in some cases scintigraphic regression of bone metastases was observed. The two radiopharmaceuticals did not show any statistically significant differences in palliative efficacy and toxicity, either in first RTBM or in retreatments.