The strength of the radius depends on the mechanical properties of cancellous and cortical bone. By assessing both compartments quantitatively with bone densitometry, we tried to identify the specificity of each in predicting the load at which the distal radius will fracture. Twenty human cadaver forearms were scanned for bone mineral and geometric properties with quantitative computed tomography and dual x-ray absorptiometry. In both a neutral loading situation and one in which the wrist was extended 45 degrees, the load distribution was determined with pressure-sensitive films and a fracture simulating a fall on the hand was produced with a material testing machine. Fractures that occur with the wrist in extension were produced by a central impact of the scaphoid onto the radiocarpal joint, and those that occur under neutral loading conditions were produced by a more commonly distributed loading pattern. The load at fracture was most specifically predicted (r(2) = 0.74) by bone mineral and geometric measures of the cortex at the shaft of the radius. Bone mineral density measures of trabecular (r(2) = 0.64) and total (r(2) = 0.66) bone were less successful in predicting the fracture load. After adjustment for bone sizer the geometric and density measures revealed similar specificity. Cortical bone, therefore, contributes significantly to the strength of the distal radius and may play an important role in the prediction of osteoporotic wrist fractures.