Although it is a cardinal feature of involutional osteoporosis, there is often disagreement on what constitutes a vertebral fracture. We measured vertebrae T4-L5 in 52 healthy women to develop a normal range (mean +/- 3 SD) for vertebral shape and used these data to assess the prevalence of vertebral fractures. We classified vertebral fractures by type of deformity (wedge, biconcavity, or compression) and further by the degree of deformity (grades 1 and 2). In 195 postmenopausal women who were an age-stratified random sample of the Rochester population (ages 47-94), 40 (21%) had vertebral fractures (mean, 2 per person). There was a similar number of compression and wedge fractures, and grade 2 fractures were as common as grade 1. In a referral sample of 74 women with suspected osteoporosis, 62 (84%) had vertebral fractures (mean, 3.3 per person). Wedge fractures were most common, and grade 2 fractures were more common than grade 1. The distribution of type and grade of fractures differed between the two patient groups (P less than 0.01). Bone mineral density of the lumbar spine was related to mean fracture grade (r = -0.33, P less than 0.05) and to fracture number (r = -0.57, P less than 0.001) but not to fracture type. We conclude that a comprehensive approach is required in describing vertebral fractures. Using this approach we found distortion in the fracture characteristics of women referred to an osteoporosis clinic compared to women in the community.