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OBJECTIVE--To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of endometrial laser ablation and transcervical resection of the endometrium compared with hysterectomy in the surgical treatment of women with dysfunctional uterine bleeding. DESIGN--Prospective randomised controlled trial. SETTING--Gynaecology department of a large teaching hospital. SUBJECTS--204 women who would otherwise have been undergoing hysterectomy for menorrhagia were recruited between August 1990 and March 1992 and randomly allocated to hysterectomy (n = 99) or conservative (hysteroscopic) surgery (transcervical resection (n = 52) and laser ablation (n = 53)). MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Operative complications, postoperative recovery, relief of menstrual and other symptoms, patient satisfaction with treatment after six and 12 months. RESULTS--Women treated by hysteroscopic surgery had less early morbidity and a significantly shorter recovery period than those treated by hysterectomy (median time to full recovery 2-4 weeks v 2-3 months, P < 0.001). Twelve months later 17 women in the hysteroscopy group had had a hysterectomy, 11 for continuing symptoms; 11 women had had a repeat hysteroscopic procedure; 45 were amenorrhoeic or had only a brown discharge; and 35 had light periods. Dysmenorrhoea and premenstrual symptoms improved in most women in both groups. After 12 months 89% (79/89) in the hysterectomy group and 78% (75/96) in the hysteroscopy group were very satisfied with the effect of surgery (P < 0.05); 95% (85/89) and 90% (86/96) thought that there had been an acceptable improvement in symptoms, and 72% (64/89) and 71% (68/96) would recommend the same operation to others. CONCLUSIONS--Hysteroscopic endometrial ablation was superior to hysterectomy in terms of operative complications and postoperative recovery. Satisfaction after hysterectomy was significantly higher, but between 70% and 90% of the women were satisfied with the outcome of hysteroscopic surgery. Hysteroscopic surgery can be recommended as an alternative to hysterectomy for dysfunctional uterine bleeding.