A prospective analysis of the value of urinary diagnostic indices in ascertaining the cause of acute renal failure was undertaken. Our results show that in the setting of acute oliguria a diagnosis of potentially reversible prerenal azotemia is likely with urine osmolality greater than 500 mosm/kg H2O, urine sodium concentration less than 20 meq/litre, urine/plasma urea nitrogen ratio greater than 8, and urine/plasma creatinine ratio greater than 40. Conversely, a urine osmolality less than 350 mosm/kg, urine sodium concentration greater than 40 meq/liter, urine/plasma urea nitrogen ratio less than 3, and urine/plasma creatinine ratio less than 20 suggest acute tubular necrosis. A significant number of oliguric patients will not have urinary indices that fall within these guidelines. In this setting, urine sodium concentration divided by the urine-to-plasma creatinine ratio (the renal failure index) and the fractional excretion of filtered sodium provide a reliable means of differentiating reversible prerenal azotemia from acute tubular necrosis.