Thirty-three patients presenting with spontaneous rupture of hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs) were referred for emergency transcatheter arterial embolization. Blood was present in the ascitic fluid on abdominal paracentesis in all 33 patients. Seventeen patients underwent emergency computed tomography (CT). HCCs were demonstrated on CT in all 17 patients. Blood was detected in the peritoneal cavity or around the liver surface on CT in 15 patients (88.2%), one of whom also had active extravasation of the contrast medium into the peritoneal cavity. Vascular tumours were present in the hepatic angiograms prior to embolization in all 33 patients but extravasation of the contrast medium from the HCC was seen on angiography in only six patients (18.2%). Bleeding from the ruptured HCC was stopped at the end of the procedure in 32 patients who had undergone successful embolization. The overall median survival time was 9 weeks. The median survival time of patients with a serum total bilirubin level of 50 micromol/l or below was 15 weeks, while that of patients with a serum total bilirubin level above 50 micromol/l was only 1 week, the difference being statistically significant. Embolization is therefore the treatment of choice in arresting life-threatening bleeding in ruptured HCC in patients with a serum total bilirubin level of 50 micromol/l or below, but the procedure is rarely effective in prolonging survival in patients with a serum total bilirubin above this critical level.