In a qualitative systematic review, we have evaluated randomized controlled trials (RCT) of incisional local anaesthesia compared with placebo or no treatment in the control of postoperative pain after open abdominal operations. Twenty-six studies with data from 1211 patients were considered appropriate for analysis. Five RCT considered inguinal herniotomy, four hysterectomy, eight cholecystectomy and nine studies a variety of surgical procedures. Outcome measures were pain scores, supplementary analgesics and time to first analgesic request. Efficacy was estimated by significant difference (P < 0.05), as reported in the original investigation. All studies of herniotomy showed a 2-7-h duration of clinically relevant improved pain relief. Results of hysterectomy studies were inconclusive, with two being negative. Five of the cholecystectomy studies showed significant differences but questionable clinical importance and validity in three. In various other procedures results were inconsistent and in some of minor clinical importance. Except for herniotomy, there was a lack of evidence for effect of incisional local anaesthesia on postoperative pain and further standardized studies are needed before recommendations can be made.