Over a 5-year period, 54 intra-abdominal abscesses were observed in 40 (20.8%) of 192 patients with Crohn's disease. The median age was 39 years (range 17-76 years); median interval from diagnosis, 7.5 years (range 0-24 years) and the median number of surgical operations was 2 (range 0-7). Forty abscesses (74.1%) were spontaneous and 14 (25.9%) were postoperative. Thirty abscesses were initially managed by laparotomy, 14 by percutaneous drainage, nine by incision and drainage and in one case the abscess drained spontaneously. Intra-abdominal abscesses were managed successfully by laparotomy in 23 (76.7%) of 30 patients, with a 93% success rate (13 of 14) for spontaneous abscesses managed by resection and primary anastomosis. Three of 8 (37.5%) spontaneous abscesses were managed successfully by percutaneous drainage, a temporising effect being achieved in a further two cases. There was no significant difference in sepsis score or duration of hospital stay for patients managed initially by laparotomy and those managed by drainage. However, patients with stricturing or fistulating Crohn's disease were much more likely to have initial management by laparotomy and in these patients surgical intervention was found to be an effective initial strategy.