Vertebral fractures are the classic hallmark of osteoporosis, yet little is known of their epidemiology. The incidence of clinically diagnosed vertebral fractures was therefore directly assessed in the predominantly white (European descent) population of Rochester, Minnesota. Altogether, 341 Rochester residents were radiologically diagnosed for the first time with one or more vertebral fractures in the 5 year study period, 1985-1989. The overall age- and sex-adjusted incidence rate was 117 per 100,000 person-years (95% CI, 105 to 130). The age-adjusted rate in women (145 per 100,000 person-years) was almost twice that in men (73 per 100,000 person-years). Of all fractures, 47 (14%) followed severe trauma, 282 (83%) followed moderate or no trauma, and 12 (3%) were pathologic. Incidence rates for fractures following moderate trauma were higher in women than in men and rose steeply with age in both genders. In contrast, fractures following severe trauma were more frequent in men, and their incidence increased less with age. These Rochester rates are greater than those previously reported from studies in Britain and Sweden but lower than the incidence rates extrapolated from a prevalence study in this population.