BACKGROUND: The natural history of parathyroid function after successful renal transplantation (RT) and the factors predisposing to persistent hyperparathyroidism (HPT) are not well established. A better knowledge of these data may be helpful in the development of algorithms for optimal surveillance and treatment of HPT after successful RT. Our aim was to evaluate the post-transplant natural history of parathyroid function and calcium metabolism in patients with a functional renal graft and to identify risk factors for persistent HPT. METHODS: Charts of 1165 allograft kidney recipients transplanted between 1989 and 2000 were reviewed. Patients with an intact parathyroid hormone (iPTH) level available at the time of transplantation were identified. The charts of the latter patients were checked for a variety of demographic and clinical data, and all determinations of the iPTH concentration available since transplantation were recorded. Serum levels of calcium, phosphorus, alkaline phosphatases and creatinine, concurrently determined, were also registered. RESULTS: After an initial fall, iPTH levels showed a slow but steady decline towards the upper normal limit. The prevalence of persistent HPT, defined as an iPTH level > or =2.5 times the upper normal limit or the need for parathyroidectomy following transplantation, remained stable at approximately 17% up to 4 years after transplantation. Patients with persistent HPT had significantly elevated serum levels of iPTH, calcium and phosphorus at the time of RT, and had spent a longer time on dialysis. Post-transplant iPTH levels correlated significantly with transplant kidney function. CONCLUSION: Kidney transplant recipients with a high iPTH and calcium x phosphate product at the time of transplantation are at risk for persistent HPT especially when renal function is suboptimal. Therapy for persistent HPT, if considered, should be initiated 3 months post-transplantation since further spontaneous improvement of parathyroid function thereafter is limited.