Three-dimensional finite element (FE) analyses were performed to characterize the local mechanical environment created within the tissue regenerate during mandibular distraction osteogenesis (DO) in a rat model. Finite element models were created from three-dimensional computed tomography image data of rat hemi-mandibles at four different time points during an optimal distraction osteogenesis protocol (i.e., most successful protocol for bone formation): end latency (post-operative day (POD) 5), distraction day 2 (POD 7), distraction day 5 (POD 10), and distraction day 8 (POD 13). A 0.25 mm distraction was simulated and the resulting hydrostatic stresses and maximum principal tensile strains were determined within the tissue regenerate. When compared to previous histological findings, finite element analyses showed that tensile strains up to 13% corresponded to regions of new bone formation and regions of periosteal hydrostatic pressure with magnitudes less than 17 kPa corresponded to locations of cartilage formation. Tensile strains within the center of the gap were much higher, leading us to conclude that tissue damage would occur there if the tissue was not compliant enough to withstand such high strains, and that this damage would trigger formation of new mesenchymal tissue. These data were consistent with histological evidence showing mesenchymal tissue present in the center of the gap throughout distraction. Finite element analyses performed at different time points during distraction were instrumental in determining the changes in hydrostatic stress and tensile strain fields throughout distraction, providing a mechanical environment rationale for the different levels of bone formation in end latency, and distraction day 2, 5, and 8 specimens. © 2004 Orthopaedic Research Society. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.