Ninety-one patients were allocated randomly to three groups to receive 1% ropivacaine 10 ml, 0.5% ropivacaine 20 ml or 0.5% bupivacaine 20 ml extradurally. Intermittent sensory (pinprick) and motor (Bromage scale) assessments of the block produced were recorded, with an assessment of the quality of the block and the requirement for supplementary analgesia. There was little difference between the groups in frequency, onset, duration or spread of sensory block. However, the motor block produced by 0.5% ropivacaine was less intense and of shorter duration than that with bupivacaine. The block produced by the smaller volume of ropivacaine was less reliable clinically than the larger, more dilute, solution and more anaesthetic supplements were required in that group. Cardiovascular changes were similar in all three groups. The peak plasma concentration of ropivacaine was significantly greater and T1/2 significantly shorter than those of bupivacaine, although no patient showed any features of systemic toxicity. The systemic kinetics of ropivacaine were not influenced significantly by varying the concentration or volume administered.