BACKGROUND: Vertebroplasty is a promising but as yet unproven treatment for painful osteoporotic vertebral fractures. It involves radiographic-guided injection of various types of bone cement directly into the vertebral fracture site. Uncontrolled studies and two controlled quasi-experimental before-after studies comparing volunteers who were offered treatment to those who refused it, have suggested an early benefit including rapid pain relief and improved function. Conversely, several uncontrolled studies and one of the controlled before-after studies have also suggested that vertebroplasty may increase the risk of subsequent vertebral fractures, particularly in vertebrae adjacent to treated levels or if cement leakage into the adjacent disc has occurred. As yet, there are no completed randomised controlled trials of vertebroplasty for osteoporotic vertebral fractures. The aims of this participant and outcome assessor-blinded randomised placebo-controlled trial are to i) determine the short-term efficacy and safety (3 months) of vertebroplasty for alleviating pain and improving function for painful osteoporotic vertebral fractures; and ii) determine its medium to longer-term efficacy and safety, particularly the risk of further fracture over 2 years. DESIGN: A double-blind randomised controlled trial of 200 participants with one or two recent painful osteoporotic vertebral fractures. Participants will be stratified by duration of symptoms (< and >or= 6 weeks), gender and treating radiologist and randomly allocated to either the treatment or placebo. Outcomes will be assessed at baseline, 1 week, 1, 3, 6, 12 and 24 months. Outcome measures include overall, night and rest pain on 10 cm visual analogue scales, quality of life measured by the Assessment of Quality of Life, Osteoporosis Quality of Life and EQ-5D questionnaires; participant perceived recovery on a 7-point ordinal scale ranging from 'a great deal worse' to 'a great deal better'; disability measured by the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire; timed 'Up and Go' test; and adverse effects. The presence of new fractures will be assessed by radiographs of the thoracic and lumbar spine performed at 12 and 24 months. DISCUSSION: The results of this trial will be of major international importance and findings will be immediately translatable into clinical practice.