Apoptosis (programmed cell death) has been identified as a histopathologic feature of tendinopathy. While the precise mechanism(s) that triggers the apoptotic cascade in tendon cells has not been identified, it has been theorized that loss of cellular homeostatic tension following microscopic damage to individual tendon fibrils could be the stimulus for initiating the pathologic events associated with tendinopathy. To determine if loss of homeostatic tension following stress deprivation could induce apoptosis in tendon cells, rat tail tendons were stress-deprived or cyclically loaded (3% strain at 0.17 Hz) for 24 hours under tissue culture conditions. Caspase-3 (an upstream mediator of apoptosis) mRNA expression was evaluated using quantitative polymerase chain reaction and caspase-3 protein synthesis was identified using immunohistochemistry. Apoptotic cells were identified histologically using an antibody for single-stranded DNA. Stress deprivation for 24 hours resulted in an increase in caspase-3 mRNA expression when compared to fresh controls or cyclically loaded tendons. Stress deprivation also increased the percentage of apoptotic cells (10.59% +/- 2.80) compared to controls (1.87% +/- 1.07) or cyclically loaded tendons (3.73% +/- 0.87). These data suggest loss of homeostatic tension following stress deprivation induces apoptosis in rat tail tendon cells.