Hydroxyapatite nanoparticles (nano-HAP) have been reported to cause inflammatory reactions. Here, we aimed to compare the effects of four types of nano-HAP with different nanocrystal morphologies (short rod-like, long rod-like, spherical or needle-shaped crystals) and sizes (10–20, 10–30 or 20–40 nm) on growth inhibition and apoptosis in primary cultured rat osteoblasts. The osteoblasts was treated with the four types of nano-HAP at various concentrations (20, 40, 60, 80 or 100 mg l−1). The nano-HAP specific surface area was detected using the Brunauer, Emmet and Teller method. The cell growth rate was detected using the 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide assay; apoptotic alterations and the level of reactive oxygen species in osteoblasts were measured using flow cytometry; and the amounts of apoptotic p53 and cytochrome c proteins were measured using western blotting. We observed that all four types of nano-HAP inhibited the growth of osteoblasts in a dose-dependent manner. These nano-HAP significantly induced apoptosis in osteoblasts. Nano-HAP with smaller specific surface areas induced lower apoptosis rates. The needle-shaped and the short rod-like particles induced greater cellular injury than the spherical and long rod-like particles, respectively. The increased apoptosis rates were accompanied by increased p53 and cytochrome c expression. These findings indicate that nano-HAP inhibit the activity of osteoblasts and also induce the apoptosis of osteoblasts in vitro. These findings also suggest that the nano-HAP-induced apoptotic pathway is mediated by a mitochondrial-dependent pathway. Moreover, the sizes, morphologies and concentrations of nano-HAP have significant effects on the apoptotic level. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.