BACKGROUND: Surgery for Crohn's disease is not intended for cure, but rather to relieve symptoms and treat complications. Perioperative morbidity, the fear of creating short bowel syndrome, and the tendency of the disease to recur convinced many physicians to refer their Crohn's patients for surgery only when life-threatening complications occur. METHODS: This is a retrospective analysis of 47 patients operated on for Crohn's disease between 1989 and 1994. Twenty-six patients were operated on for 'classic' indications ('classic' group) and the other 21 were operated on to improve their quality of life ('quality' group). RESULTS: There was no operative or postoperative mortality during a mean follow-up period of 50 (27 to 84) months. All major postoperative complications occurred only in patients operated on for the classic indications (four abscesses, two fistulas, one wound dehiscence, and two small bowel obstructions). During the follow-up period, a total of 13 patients (50%) in the classic group and only 5 patients (24%) in the quality group required reintroduction of medical therapy or additional operations for exacerbations and complications of Crohn's disease. CONCLUSIONS: Our data suggest that surgical intervention intended to improve the quality of life for Crohn's disease patients is safe and effective for carefully selected patients. It does improve quality of life, may prevent life-threatening complications, and offers a lower recurrence rate following surgery.