The aim of this prospective, randomized study was to determine whether laparoscopic cholecystectomy should be performed as an early or a delayed operation in patients with acute cholecystitis. After diagnostic workup, patients were randomized to one of two groups: (1) early laparoscopic cholecystectomy (i.e., within 7 days after onset of symptoms) or (2) initial conservative treatment followed by delayed laparoscopic cholecystectomy 6 to 8 weeks later. Seventy-four patients were placed in the early-operation group, and 71 patients were assigned to the delayed-operation strategy. There was no significant difference in conversion rates (early 31% vs. delayed 29%), operating times (early 98 [range 30 to 355] minutes vs. delayed 100 [45 to 280] minutes), or complications. Failure with the conservative treatment strategy was noted in 26% of these patients. The total hospital stay was significantly shorter in the early group (5 [range 3 to 63] days) vs. the delayed group (8 [range 4 to 50] days; P<0.05). Despite a high conversion rate, early laparoscopic cholecystectomy offered significant advantages in the management of acute cholecystitis compared to a conservative strategy. The greatest advantage was a reduced total hospital stay.