This study analyzed the temporal and regional variations in bone loss and explored bone cell activities via biochemical markers during an extended follow-up in patients with spinal cord injury (SCI). In parallel, the possible role of the osteoprotegerin (OPG)/RANKL system in disuse osteoporosis was investigated. Seven male patients with acute and complete SCI (31.3 +/- 9.5 years) and 12 able-bodied (AB) men (26.9 +/- 4.2 years) participated in the study. Measurements were performed 16, 24, 36, 48, and 71 weeks after injury. At week 16, marked calcium homeostasis disturbance and a concomitant increase in bone resorption markers were observed, reflecting an intense bone degradation process. Resorption activity decreased continuously with time. Contrasting with the great rise in the resorption markers, the bone formation markers showed little variation. During the period of investigation, a loss in bone mineral density (BMD) was demonstrated for the total body (-4.3%), pelvis (-15.7%) and lower limbs (-15.2%), whereas BMD did not change at the lumbar spine, upper limbs, or skull. At all stages, SCI patients had lower serum RANKL levels and higher serum OPG levels than did AB controls, but no significant variation with time was observed for either cytokine. These findings suggest that bone resorption persisted long after SCI and specifically affected BMD at sublesional sites. The marked modification of serum OPG/RANKL levels in SCI patients suggests that this system is affected, in disuse osteoporosis. However, the precise biologic role of the OPG/RANKL system in the bone tissue of SCI patients has yet to be determined.