The outcome and metabolic control was studied in 60 critically ill patients with acute renal failure (ARF) treated by continuous arteriovenous hemodiafiltration (CAVHD) in a single surgical intensive care unit. Mean age (+/- SEM) was 60 +/- 2 years with a male predominance (80%). The majority of patients required mechanical ventilation (83%) and/or vasopressor support (70%) and suffered from multiorgan failure [mean number of organ system failures 3.3 +/- 0.3 (range 1-6)]. CAVHD resulted in a rapid decline of serum urea and creatinine levels during the first 72 h (urea 47.4 +/- 2.3 to 30.3 +/- 1.4 mmol/l, p < 0.05, and creatinine 572 +/- 27 to 361 +/- 23 mumol/l, p < 0.05); thereafter, controlled steady-state levels were achieved with serum urea levels kept below 30 mmol/l with full protein alimentation and often despite hypotension, surgery and septicemia. Significant electrolyte derangements could be easily corrected and maintained within normal limits. Bicarbonate homeostasis could be restored within 48 h in patients with severe metabolic acidosis (HCO3- < 20 mmol/l) with use of bicarbonate as a buffering anion (17 +/- 0.5 to 23.2 +/- 0.6, p < 0.05). CAVHD allowed rapid removal of excess body and lung water (up to 5 liters/day) without hemodynamic instability. Despite a mean pretreatment APACHE II score of 26.5, 26 patients (43%) survived until discharge from the intensive care unit, of whom 23 (38%) survived to leave hospital. Requirement of mechanical ventilation or vasopressor support, higher APACHE II scores and septicemia were all associated with a poor prognosis.