The use of chemotherapy and irradiation for organ preservation attempts to eliminate the need for extensive surgery in patients with advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). We sought to characterize the morbidity of surgery in patients who needed surgery after treatment with induction chemotherapy followed by simultaneous chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy). The surgical morbidity within the first 30 postoperative days of 17 patients treated in an organ preservation approach between July 1991 and December 1994 was compared with a control group of patients undergoing similar surgical procedures during the same period. The organ preservation study patients underwent surgical procedures consisting of 18 neck dissections and 5 resections of the primary site. Six patients in the organ preservation study group experienced 8 surgical complications within the first 30 postoperative days, and most complications were minor. There was no significant difference in the duration of surgery or length of hospitalization between study patients and matched controls. Our surgical complication rate (35.3%) was higher but not statistically different from that of the control group, and compared favorably to reports of surgical morbidity (44% to 61%) in the literature on patients treated with chemoradiotherapy. The lower complication rate seen in this study may be a reflection of early surgical intervention as part of our organ preservation study scheme, the preponderance of neck dissections performed, and the limited number of pharyngeal procedures performed.