The prevalence, type, and factors that may influence the development of bone disease in primary biliary cirrhosis, have been investigated in 20 consecutive patients, who, in addition to liver function tests and mineral and vitamin D metabolism studies, were submitted to a transiliac bone biopsy after tetracycline double-labeling for quantitative histomorphometric examination. Intestinal calcium absorption was also assessed in 16 patients. Seven patients (35%) had reduced bone volume and were considered osteoporotic. Three also had bone mineralization impairment, but did not have criteria for osteomalacia. Bone formation was depressed in 15 patients, and bone resorption was low or normal in 19 cases. Eroded surfaces were reduced in all osteoporotic patients. Duration of primary biliary cirrhosis was significantly longer in patients with osteoporosis (6.3 +/- 0.6 yr) than in those without osteoporosis (2.6 +/- 0.6, p = 0.004). Moreover, osteoporosis was more prevalent in postmenopausal women, and in those who had intestinal calcium malabsorption, which was present in 80% of osteoporotic patients but in only 18% of nonosteoporotic patients (p = 0.03). Osteoporosis and mineralization bone impairment were unrelated to the severity of cholestasis. 25-Hydroxyvitamin D was significantly lower in those patients with intestinal calcium malabsorption. The results of this study indicate that osteodystrophy in primary biliary cirrhosis is characterized mainly by "low-turnover" osteoporosis, which is related to the duration of the liver disease, postmenopausal condition, and calcium malabsorption.