We investigated the short-term recuperation of bone mass during skeletal reloading after a period of unloading in young rats. One hind limb of 4-week-old rats was either unloaded irreversibly by sciatic neurectomy, or unloaded reversibly by external fixation. Other animals were sham-operated. After 9 days, the fixation-unloaded limbs were reloaded for 1-3 weeks and were compared with the hind limbs of age-matched unloaded (neurectomized) and sham-operated controls. Cortical and cancellous bone mass was measured using ashing and histomorphometry. Cortical bone mass (expressed as femoral dry and ash weight and tibial cortical bone area) was reduced in both unloaded groups and was accompanied by production of hypomineralized bone, as shown by a reduction in the percent ash of the dry weight. Cancellous bone mass (expressed as bone area and surface at the tibial metaphysis) was also reduced in both unloaded groups. Cortical bone mass deficit was greater in the fixation group than in the neurectomy group. Thereafter it increased in the neurectomy group despite a normal longitudinal growth rate, but returned to age-matched values in the reloaded group by 3 weeks. The changes in tibial cancellous bone mass were more pronounced but followed a similar pattern and normalized by 2 weeks. These data demonstrate that total unloading produced by external fixation causes a greater degree of bone mass deficit than partial unloading (produced by neurectomy); the rate of bone loss during unloading in the rat hind limb is more rapid than its recovery during reloading; and cancellous bone recuperates during the reloading phase faster than does cortical bone.