The importance of calcitonin in the homeostatic response to the chronic hypercalcemia of primary hyperparathyroidism is uncertain. To clarify this issue, we have used a new, sensitive radioimmunoassay for human calcitonin to measure basal plasma calcitonin concentrations in 50 patients with primary hyperparathyroidism (32 female, 18 male). We assayed calcium-stimulated calcitonin concentrations preoperatively in 22 of the patients (16 female, 6 male) and postoperatively in 6. Finally, we assayed pentagastrin-stimulated calcitonin concentrations preoperatively in eight of the patients (three female, five male). Plasma calcitonin values after an overnight fast were indistinguishable from those in normal subjects (mean±SE, males, 48±3 normal and 46±5 pg/ml hyperparathyroid, females, 31±2 normal and 37±3 pg/ml hyperparathyroid.) Among hyperparathyroid patients of both sexes, increases of calcitonin during Ca infusion (15 mg Ca/kg in 4 h) were within normal limits. However, the mean maximal increase of calcitonin was significantly lower in hyperparathyroid than in normal subjects (P < 0.05). In six patients normocalcemic 5-15 mo after parathyroid surgery, fasting plasma calcitonin values were not significantly different, but responses to Ca infusion were greater than preoperatively (Δ calcitonin ±SE: 13±4 preoperatively and 53±35 pg/ml postoperatively). The mean maximal increase of calcitonin after pentagastrin (0.5 μg/kg i.v.) was slightly lower than normal in the patients (mean±SE, males, 45±8 normal and 38±10 pg/ml hyperparathyroid, females, 6±2 normal and 0 pg/ml hyperparathyroid). Thus, primary hyperparathyroidism is accompanied by normal steady-state concentrations of circulating calcitonin, and normal-to-blunted C-cell responses to pentagastrin or induced hypercalcemia, the response to calcium generally increasing after successful parathyroid surgery. These results clearly show that primary hyperparathyroidism is not characterized by hypercalcitoninemia. The seemingly paradoxical absence of elevated steady-state calcitonin concentrations may be accounted for partly by decreased secretory reserve. However, primary hyperparathyroidism may also be accompanied by an increase in the threshold of sensitivity for calcium stimulation of calcitonin secretion.