Nonsurgical reduction of portal hypertension by transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) is widely used for prevention of variceal rebleeding (elective TIPS). Information is limited about the value of emergency TIPS for acute variceal bleeding unresponsive to endoscopic and drug therapy. The aim of the present study was therefore to determine whether the effects and complications differ between emergency and elective TIPS in patients with cirrhosis of the liver. TIPS was performed in 11 patients with acute variceal bleeding unresponsive to endoscopic treatment and 22 patients in stable condition after an episode of variceal bleeding. Clinical examination, blood sampling, Doppler sonography of TIPS flow, and upper gastrointestinal endoscopy were performed at days 1, 7, and 30 and at three-month intervals after TIPS. Mean follow-up was 549 (1-987) days. Bleeding was controlled by emergency TIPS in 10/11 patients. Probability of survival was not different after emergency and elective TIPS (0.73 vs 0.84 at one year). Early rebleeding (< or =2 weeks) occurred more often after emergency TIPS (3/11 vs 0/22 patients; P = 0.03), but there was no significant difference in late rebleeding. Occlusion of TIPS was more frequent after emergency TIPS. Occurrence of TIPS stenoses was identical in both groups (4/11 vs 8/22). De novo or deterioration of preexisting hepatic encephalopathy was similar (18% vs 24%; NS). It is concluded that TIPS is effective for control of acute variceal bleeding unresponsive to endoscopic and drug treatment. Early rebleeding and stent occlusion occurred more often after emergency TIPS. Late rebleeding, complications, and long-term survival did not differ from elective TIPS.