Spontaneous rupture of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a life-threatening condition; the mechanism is not clear but it is suggested that rupture is usually preceded by rapid expansion of the tumour secondary to bleeding from within its substance. Diagnosis may be made by abdominal paracentesis, ultrasonography, computed tomography or angiography; the positive rates of diagnosis are 86, 66, 100 and 20 per cent respectively. Prognosis is poor. Based on treatment results reported in the literature, the mean survival time for patients who underwent hepatectomy, transcatheter arterial embolization (TAE) and conservative therapy were 247, 98 and 13 days respectively. Judging from the reported results the first choice for emergency treatment of haemostasis is TAE. If laparotomy is undertaken, hepatic artery ligation, preferably of the branch supplying the liver lobe bearing the tumour, should be considered, together with haemostasis of the rupture site by various means (suture plication, packing, argon beam coagulation, use of microwave or absolute ethanol). Emergency hepatectomy should be reserved for patients with an easily resectable lesion who are in a stable cardiovascular condition. Conservative therapy may be used for selected patients in extremely poor condition. The rational treatment for the majority of patients with ruptured HCC is TAE, followed by hepatectomy if the lesion is resectable.