BACKGROUND The main argument for laparoscopic cholecystectomy in preference to open cholecystectomy appears to be based on less traumatic incisions inflicted on the abdominal wall. To investigate the effects of different incision lengths on patients following elective open cholecystectomy, a randomized clinical study was conducted. METHODS In this study 130 patients were randomly assigned to undergo either open cholecystectomy through a transverse subcostal incision of mean length 5.8 cm, so called minicholecystectomy (65 patients), or to undergo conventional cholecystectomy through a paracostal incision of mean length 13.1 cm (65 patients). The perception of pain after operation was measured by a visual analogue scale. To register late complications the mean(s.d.) hospitalization period after operation was extended to 11.5(1.2) days in the minicholecystectomy group and 15.4(2.5) days in the conventional cholecystectomy group. RESULTS The perceived pain and analgesic requirements were found to be similar in both groups. Twelve of 65 patients in the minicholecystectomy group and four of 65 in the conventional cholecystectomy group developed wound haematoma. CONCLUSION On the basis of this prospective randomized study, the hypothesis that a smaller incision length on the abdominal wall could lower the level of perceived pain, and therefore decrease the postoperative analgesic intake after minicholecystectomy, could not be confirmed.