OBJECTIVES: (1) To examine the prevalence and extent of intramural metastasis in squamous cell carcinomas of the oesophagus so as to delineate the resection margins for these tumours; (2) to devise an appropriate method for measurement of these lesions which takes into account of the contraction of the specimens after resection. METHODS: Oesophagectomy specimens were prospectively collected from 96 patients (87 males, nine females) with primary oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma over a two year period. The sizes of the tumours were measured in situ, after resection and after application of muscle relaxant (to regain their in situ length). The specimens were then serially sectioned for histological examination. RESULTS: The sizes of the tumours measured after application of muscle relaxant roughly corresponded to those measured in situ. Intramural metastasis was observed in 26% of the cases. Sixty four per cent (16 cases) of these were on the oral side, 72% (18 cases) on the gastric side, and 25% (nine cases) on both sides of the tumours. The most distant extent of intramural metastasis from the primary tumour was from 0.5 cm to 7.7 cm (mean = 3.4 cm) on the oral side, and 0.5 to 9.5 cm (mean 4 cm) on the gastric aspect of the tumour. Intramural metastasis was seen only in patients in whom the primary cancer had deep muscle infiltration. Multiple neoplastic lesions could be detected in 33% of the patients. Both intramural metastasis and multiple neoplastic lesions were associated with extensive lymph node infiltration. However, they had different histological features and extent of infiltration. CONCLUSIONS: Intramural metastasis was frequently observed in oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma. This implies that excision with wide margins should be considered for local control of the disease.