To characterize the magnitude and location of mineralized bone loss, 40 patients (20 men, 20 women, 29 white, 11 black) with clinically significant renal osteodystrophy who could be unambiguously classified based on histologic criteria as having osteitis fibrosa (OF; 20 cases) or osteomalacia (OM; 20 cases) were studied; they had been on maintenance hemodialysis for 4.6 +/- 3.0 yr. One hundred forty-two healthy women of similar age and ethnic composition served as control subjects. In all subjects, the proportions of mineralized bone, osteoid, and porosity (nonbone soft tissue) were measured separately in cortical and cancellous bone tissue, from intact full-thickness biopsies of the ilium, representative of the axial skeleton. The results were related to the volumes of cortical and cancellous bone tissue separately and to the volume of the entire biopsy core. Approximately three-quarters of the patients had measurements in the appendicular skeleton by single photon absorptiometry of the radius and morphometry of the metacarpal. Disease effects did not differ significantly between ethnic groups. Mineralized cortical bone volume (per unit of core volume) was reduced by approximately 45% in both patient groups. Mineralized cancellous bone volume was significantly increased by 36% in the patients with OF and nonsignificantly reduced by 9% in the patients with OM; however, the reduction in the latter patients was significant in relation to tissue volume. The combined total deficit for both types of iliac bone was approximately 20% in the patients with OF and approximately 40% in the patients with OM. Significant reductions in appendicular cortical bone were demonstrated in both patient groups at both measurement sites. Regardless of the current histologic classification, the major structural abnormality in the skeleton is generalized thinning of cortical bone due to increased net endocortical resorption, the most characteristic effect on bone of hyperparathyroidism. Protection of the skeleton from the adverse consequences of renal failure will require therapeutic intervention in patients with no symptoms of either renal or bone disease.