Seventy-four patients who underwent seton treatment of high anal fistulae over a 6-year period have been reviewed. Four different techniques were used: staged fistulotomy (n = 24), cutting seton (n = 13), short-term seton drainage (n = 14) and long-term seton drainage in patients with Crohn's disease (n = 23). Recurrence developed in two patients (8 per cent) undergoing two-stage fistulotomy; two patients (14 per cent) undergoing short-term drainage and nine (39 per cent) of the patients with Crohn's disease. Three patients with Crohn's disease required proctectomy for progressive perianal disease. The remaining 11 patients with Crohn's disease (48 per cent) obtained a good result. None of the patients treated with a cutting seton developed a recurrence. Minor incontinence developed in 13 patients (54 per cent) undergoing two-stage fistulotomy and seven patients (54 per cent) treated with a cutting seton. When sphincter muscle was not divided, five patients (36 per cent) undergoing short-term drainage and six patients (26 per cent) undergoing long-term drainage developed minor incontinence. High complex fistulae can be successfully treated with only minor loss of continence using different seton techniques. In high Crohn's fistulae, long-term seton drainage preserves sphincter function, but recurrence is common if the seton is removed.