Trabecular bone turnover and bone marrow capacity for the development of bone cells in the tibia were assessed after sciatic neurectomy (NX) in mice. The right hindlimbs of 6-week-old DDY mice were neurectomized and left hindlimbs were sham-operated and served as NX controls. Histomorphometrical analyses of the trabecular bone of the proximal tibia demonstrated the initial decrease in bone formation rate for the first 14 days and the subsequent increase in osteoclast surface for the next 14 days. The number of adherent stromal cells per tibia obtained for the NX limbs was reduced on days 7 and 10 postsurgically, and then recovered on day 12. However, the alkaline phosphatase activity of the cells was persistently depressed. The formation of osteoclast-like multinucleated cells in the marrow cultures obtained from NX limbs at days 10, 12, and 14 showed a significant increase in the medium containing parathyroid hormone (PTH). The number of colonies cultured for colony forming units-fibroblastic (CFU-f) that developed from the marrow cells did not differ in the NX and the contralateral limbs at any time during the period. On the other hand, the number of colonies cultured of colony forming units for granulocytes and macrophages (CFU-GM) was markedly increased for both the NX and the contralateral tibiae at days 12 and 14. This study clearly demonstrates that there are two stages in the development of osteopenia after NX. During the first 14 days, trabecular bone formation and number of marrow stromal cells are reduced. In the second 14 day period, the trabecular osteoclast number is increased and osteoclast formation from the bone marrow cells is enhanced in the presence of PTH. However, neither the CFU-f nor the CFU-GM assay could identify the changes in osteogenic or osteoclastogenic potential of the bone marrow. These in vitro assays provide limited information on the shifts in bone marrow cell lineages and the local environment producing osteopenia in the immobilized limb in vivo.