This is a retrospective, clinical study evaluating the long-term outcome of subtotal parathyroidectomy (PTX) in 60 patients with chronic renal failure and severe secondary hyperparathyroidism. Patients were 41 +/- 2 years old (mean +/- SE) at the time of PTX, and followed for 69 +/- 6 months since the procedure. At the time of PTX, three patients had chronic renal failure, 53 had been on chronic hemodialysis, and four had received successful kidney transplants. In more than 80 per cent of patients, symptoms of hyperparathyroidism (bone pain and muscle weakness) resolved within weeks, and biochemical signs (hypercalcemia, and high plasma alkaline phosphatase and parathyroid hormone concentrations) returned to normal ranges within a year. Subperiosteal resorption, bone fractures, and soft tissue calcification frequently improved. Osteosclerosis (rugger-jersey spine), cystic bone changes, osteopenia, and vascular calcifications were, however, often unchanged or progressive. Five patients (8%) who had either persistent or recurrent hyperparathyroidism required additional surgical procedures, and two had subsequent improvement. Twelve patients who had aluminum associated bone disease diagnosed later continued to progress with a high incidence of bone fractures and severe osteopenia. Cystic bone changes, especially of the carpal bones, in association with carpal tunnel syndrome, probably representing amyloid bone disease, also did not respond to PTX. In conclusion, PTX is an effective surgical procedure to reverse complications of hyperparathyroidism in patients with end-stage renal disease, provided that other causes of osteodystrophy, such as aluminum or amyloid-associated bone diseases, are adequately excluded. We feel that subtotal PTX, leaving a small remnant in place, is the procedure of choice.