The analgesic efficacy of continuous local anaesthetic wound instillation after open hepatic surgery was evaluated. Forty-eight patients scheduled for elective liver surgery were assigned to receive either ropivacaine 0.25% or saline infusion at 4 ml.h(-1) for 68 h via two multi-orifice indwelling catheters placed within the musculo-fascial layer before skin closure; plasma ropivacaine concentrations were measured during the infusion. Supplemental analgesia was provided by intravenous patient-controlled analgesia morphine. Patients in the ropivacaine group had decreased mean (SD) total morphine consumption (58 (30) mg vs 86 (44) mg, p = 0.01) and less pain at rest as well as after spirometry at 4, 12, 24, 48 and 72 h postoperatively (p < 0.01). Forced vital capacity was reduced postoperatively in both groups, but the reduction was greater in the saline group at 12 and 24 h (p = 0.03). The mean plasma concentration of ropivacaine increased to 2.05 (0.78) μg.ml(-1) at the point when the infusion was terminated.