A prospective longitudinal study of patients with early RA was performed to examine the influence of disease duration, disease activity and physical activity on bone loss. Sixty-seven patients with non-steroid treated RA of less than 5 yr duration, including 16 patients with disease duration less than 6 months, had BMD measurements of the femoral neck and the lumbar spine over a 12-month period using dual energy X-ray absorptiometry. The BMD changes were compared with values from 72 control patients and were also correlated with serial measurements of disease activity (measured by the Stoke Index) and disability [measured by the Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ) score], at 3-monthly intervals over the 12-month period. No significant differences in BMD changes were found between RA patients and controls overall. Patients with disease duration of less than 6 months had significantly greater loss of BMD at the femoral neck (-3.9%, S.E.M. 1.5) than the remainder of the cohort (-0.2%, S.E.M. 0.7) (P = 0.02) and controls (-0.8%, S.E.M. 0.6). Lumbar spine BMD changes correlated with the initial Stoke Index (Rs-0.373, P = 0.01) but not mean Stoke Indices. There was no correlation of BMD changes with age or HAQ scores. These findings suggest that significant bone loss occurs within the first few months of disease in patients with RA.