To assess intrahepatic metastasis (IM) and multicentric occurrence (MO) after initial treatment of small hepatocellular carcinomas (HCC) < or = 2 cm in diameter, we performed clinical and pathological studies in 112 patients who underwent percutaneous ethanol injection therapy (PEIT) or hepatic resection for HCC from January 1985 to December 1994. Patients with intrahepatic recurrences were classified into two groups based on the type of recurrence: the IM group (n = 29, 50.9%) and the MO group (n = 28, 49.1%). Overall recurrence rates after initial treatment were 23.7% at 1 year, 64.5% at 3 years, and 76.1% at 5 years. In patients with IM, the majority of intrahepatic recurrences were observed within 3 years of initial treatment and the primary HCC lesions were closely related to the degree of tumor cell differentiation. Alternatively, intrahepatic recurrences occurred throughout the follow-up period in patients with MO, and the evidence of underlying liver disease (anti-HCV [antibody to hepatitis C virus] positive) and elevated serum alfa-fetoprotein (AFP) concentrations were closely associated with intrahepatic recurrence. Prognoses following additional treatment in MO group patients were superior to those in IM group patients. These results suggest that differentiation between IM and MO in patients with HCC is important for understanding the development and biological behavior of the tumor. That is, the early detection of intrahepatic recurrence and the institution of appropriate additional therapy (PEIT or hepatic resection) may prolong survival in patients with MO.