Radiofrequency coagulation (RFC) is being promoted as a novel technique with a low morbidity rate in the treatment of liver tumours. The purpose of this study was to assess critically the complication rates of RFC in centres with both large and limited initial experience, and to establish causes and possible means of prevention and treatment. This is an exhaustive review of the world literature (articles and abstracts) up to 31 December 2001; 82 independent reports of RFC of liver tumours were analysed. In total, 3670 patients were treated with percutaneous, laparoscopic or open RFC. The mortality rate was 0.5 per cent. Complications occurred in 8.9 per cent: abdominal bleeding in 1.6 per cent, abdominal infection in 1.1 per cent, biliary tract damage in 1.0 per cent, liver failure in 0.8 per cent, pulmonary complications in 0.8 per cent, dispersive pad skin burn in 0.6 per cent, hepatic vascular damage in 0.6 per cent, visceral damage in 0.5 per cent, cardiac complications in 0.4 per cent, myoglobinaemia or myoglobinuria in 0.2 per cent, renal failure in 0.1 per cent, tumour seeding in 0.2 per cent, coagulopathy in 0.2 per cent, and hormonal complications in 0.1 per cent. The complication rate was 7.2, 9.5, 9.9 and 31.8 per cent after a percutaneous, laparoscopic, simple open and combined open approach respectively. The mortality rate was 0.5, 0, 0 and 4.5 per cent respectively. The morbidity and mortality of RFC, while low, is higher than previously assumed. With adequate knowledge, many complications are preventable.