Cells of early, fibrous callus in bone fractures possess much alpha smooth muscle actin. This callus contracts and relaxes; however, active and passive components of its force production have yet to be defined. We aimed to establish whether passive viscoelastic properties of early soft fracture callus are smooth muscle-like in nature. Under anesthesia one rib was fractured in rats and calluses removed 7 days later for analysis. Urinary bladder detrusor muscle and Achilles tendon were also resected and analyzed. Force production in these tissues was measured using a force transducer when preparations were immersed in calcium-free Krebs-Henseleit solution (pH 7.4, 22 degrees C). Viscoelastic responses were measured in each preparation in response to 50 microN increases and decreases in force after achieving basal tissue tension by preconditioning. Callus, bladder, and tendon all displayed varying, reproducible degrees of stress relaxation (SR) and reverse stress relaxation (RSR) (n = 7 for all groups). Hysteresis was observed in callus, with the first SR response significantly larger than that produced in subsequent stretches (p < 0.05). Callus SR responses were greater than tendon (p < 0.001) but less than bladder (p < 0.001). Callus RSR responses were greater than tendon (p < 0.001), but no significant difference was seen between RSR of callus and bladder. We concluded that early, soft callus displayed significant SR and RSR phenomena similar to smooth muscle tissue, and SR and RSR may be important in maintenance of static tension in early callus by promoting osteogenesis and fracture healing.