Forty-nine patients with cerebral arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) were treated with preoperative embolization followed by resection using a microsurgical approach. In 27 patients, the AVM was located in an eloquent area; in 32 patients, the volume of the AVM was over 20 cm3. Preoperatively, flow-directed embolization was performed in 10 patients (28 procedures), selective embolization with threads was performed in 35 patients (46 procedures), and a combination of flow-directed and selective embolization was performed in 4 patients (12 procedures). The percentage of reduction of the AVM volume averaged 36% after embolization. Five minor complications (transient neurological deficits, in 2 cases associated with ischemic areas on the CT scan) were observed after embolization. The interval between the last embolization and surgery was as follows: within 10 days in 7 patients; between 11 and 20 days in 3 patients; between 21 and 30 days in 10 patients; between 31 and 60 days in 11 patients; and 2 months later in 18 patients. The efficacy of this combined treatment (embolization plus surgery) was evaluated by the incidence of hyperemic complications and the clinical outcome. Hyperemic complications occurred more frequently in patients with an AVM volume greater than 20 cm3. When compared with flow-directed embolization, selective embolization was linked with decreased bleeding during surgery; postoperatively, the incidence of cerebral edema was also lower. Clinical outcome was better after selective embolization, with no occurrence of major deficits and no mortality. When the percentage of reduction of the AVM volume after embolization was 40% or more, the incidence of intraoperative hyperemic complications was lower; moreover, new permanent deficits were never observed in patients with this volume reduction. A retrospective clinical comparison of two groups of patients with similar AVM volumes (greater than 20 cm3)--those given combined treatment (n = 32) versus those treated by direct surgery alone (n = 27)--showed that intraoperative bleeding appeared to decrease in patients treated by embolization; the incidence of postoperative hyperemic complications was not different in the two groups. New major deficits and deaths were less frequent in patients treated by embolization (P = 0.05 for the incidence of major deficits); postoperative epilepsy was also less common in these patients. In conclusion, combined treatment with selective preoperative embolization and direct surgery may help the neurosurgeon in the treatment of large, high-flow AVMs, reducing the risks connected with their surgical removal.