Seventy-two postmenopausal osteoporotic women having more than one nontraumatic vertebral crush fracture were studied. Thirty-six of them, aged 68.8 +/- 1.2 years (18 +/- 4 YSM-years since menopause), were treated with 100 IU/day of salmon calcitonin i.m. plus 500 mg of elemental calcium for 10 days each month. The remaining 36 patients, aged 69.6 +/- 1.4 years (19 +/- 3 YSM), were given only 500 mg of elemental calcium for 10 days each month. All patients underwent clinical and analytical evaluation every 3 months. Radiological evaluation, assessment of vertebral deformities, and metacarpal radiogrammetry were done every 6 months. Densitometric measurements of total and regional bone mass were made every 12 months. At 24 months, the calcitonin group showed a 60% reduction in the number of new fractures and the group receiving only calcium had a 45% increase (P < 0.001). The incidence of vertebral fractures was 0.07 per patient-year in the group treated with calcitonin and 0.45 per patient-year in the group treated with calcium (P < 0.001). At 2 years, the calcitonin group showed a 12% increase in cortical bone mass on metacarpal radiogrammetry, a 16% increase in the axial skeleton on trunk densitometry, a 3.5% increase in total body bone mineral content, a 30.7% increase in pelvic bone mineral content, and a 6.2% increase in arm bone mineral content (all P < 0.001). In the group treated with calcium alone there was a loss of bone mass in every region. These findings suggest that salmon calcitonin is effective in the treatment of osteoporosis and show that it acts on cortical and trabecular bone.