In an experimental animal exercise model we tested whether daily administration of prednisone prevents the development of mechanically induced muscle fibre damage. Six-week-old rats were treated with different doses of prednisone ranging from 1 to 50 mg/kg body weight per day or with placebo, for 8 days. On day 6 of treatment the rats were forced to run for 2 h on a level treadmill. Two days after exercise morphological damage in the soleus muscles was quantified using light microscopy and a semi-automatic image analysis system. Creatine kinase (CK) activity was measured before exercise (day 5) and directly after exercise (day 6). The expression of dystrophin in a placebo group and in a group that received 5 mg prednisone/kg body weight per day with and without performing exercise was studied with Western blotting. The effect of prednisone on fibre type distribution was determined with an antibody against fast myosin and the effect of prednisone on the proliferative activity of muscle satellite cells was studied using bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) immunohistochemistry. Exercise-induced muscle fibre damage varied in a dose-dependent way. In the placebo group the mean (SEM) damaged muscle fibre area was 4% (1%). The groups that received low doses of prednisone, 1 or 2.5 mg/kg per day, showed a similar level of muscle damage. However, with 5 mg prednisone/kg per day the amount of muscle fibre damage [mean (SEM)] was significantly reduced to 1.4% (0.5%) (P <or= 0.05, Student's t-test). High doses of prednisone had no protective effect. Directly after exercise the CK activity was increased two-fold, except in the group that received 50 mg prednisone/kg body weight per day. No changes in the amount of dystrophin were found after densitometric analysis of the Western blots. Prednisone did not affect the fibre distribution or the labelling index of satellite cells. We conclude that prednisone, given in an appropriate dose, protects muscle fibres against the development of mechanically induced damage, possibly by stabilizing the muscle fibre membranes. This action may explain the beneficial effect of prednisone observed in Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients.