The aim of this study was to systematically review the literature regarding the safety and efficacy of lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) in patients with emphysema. Studies on LVRS to August 2000 were identified using MEDLINE, Embase, Current Contents, and the Cochrane Library. Human studies of patients with upper, lower or diffuse distributions of emphysema were included. All types of bullous emphysema were excluded. A surgeon and researcher independently assessed the retrieved articles for their inclusion in the review. When LVRS was compared with medical management, at 2 years LVRS was associated with a higher FEV1 and at least equivalent survival. The use of staple excision of selected areas of lung appeared to be more efficacious than laser ablation. There is insufficient evidence to show preference for median sternotomy or videoscopically assisted thoracotomy, as the more safe and efficacious procedure. In highly selected patients with emphysema LVRS is deemed an acceptable treatment. To fully evaluate the safety and efficacy of LVRS, outcomes beyond 2 years must be included. The results of prospective randomized trials between medical management and LVRS, now in progress, are essential before a final assessment can be made.