Osteitis fibrosa, a frequent complication of chronic renal failure, is characterized by increased rates of bone formation and bone resorption due to increased secretion of parathyroid hormone (PTH). Effective treatment with oral calcitriol is often impossible in patients with osteitis fibrosa, because low doses may cause hypercalcemia. Because short-term infusions of intravenous calcitriol are capable of suppressing the secretion of parathyroid hormone in patients with uremia without causing hypercalcemia, we evaluated the effectiveness of long-term intermittent calcitriol infusions (1.0 to 2.5 micrograms three times weekly, during dialysis) in treating severe osteitis fibrosa in 12 consecutive patients on hemodialysis whose disease was refractory to conventional therapy. After a mean (+/- SE) treatment period of 11.5 +/- 1.4 months, the mean bone-formation rate declined from 1642 +/- 277 to 676 +/- 106 microns 2 per square millimeter per day (P less than 0.01) in the 11 patients who successfully completed the study. Similar reductions occurred in the osteoblastic osteoid (18 +/- 3 to 9 +/- 2 percent; P less than 0.01) and the degree of marrow fibrosis (6.2 +/- 1.7 to 3.5 +/- 1.3 percent; P = 0.01). Concomitant serum biochemical changes included increased calcium levels (2.55 +/- 0.03 to 2.67 +/- 0.05 mmol per liter; P less than 0.01), decreased alkaline phosphatase levels (489 +/- 77 to 184 +/- 32 U per liter; P less than 0.001), and decreased levels of PTH (amino-terminal, 172 +/- 34 to 69 +/- 16 ng per liter in five patients, P less than 0.03; and carboxy-terminal, 1468 +/- 467 to 1083 +/- 402 ml-eq per liter in six patients, P not significant). Although the majority of the patients had transient episodes of asymptomatic hypercalcemia, this complication could be quickly reversed by temporarily halting treatment or decreasing the dose of calcitriol. We conclude that long-term intermittent infusions of intravenous calcitriol are effective in ameliorating osteitis fibrosa in patients on dialysis. Patients whose osteitis fibrosa is refractory to oral calcitriol and who are candidates for parathyroidectomy should be considered first for intravenous calcitriol therapy.