This study examines the effect of emergent repair on incisional hernia repair outcomes at 16 Veteran's Affairs Medical Centers between 1998 and 2002. Of the 1452 cases reviewed, 63 (4.3%) were repaired emergently. Patients undergoing emergent repair were older (P = 0.02), more likely to be black (P = 0.02), and have congestive heart failure (P = 0.001) or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (P = 0.001). Of emergent repairs, 76.2 per cent involved intestinal incarceration versus 7.2 per cent of elective repairs (P < 0.0001), and 17.5 per cent had concomitant bowel resection compared with 3.9 per cent of elective cases (P < 0.0001). Patients undergoing emergent repair were also more likely to receive primary suture repair (49.2 vs 31.1%, P = 0.003), develop a postoperative complication (26.0 vs 11.3%, P = 0.002), and have increased postoperative length of stay (7 vs 4 days, P < 0.0001). There were nine (14.3%) deaths at 30 days for the emergent group compared with 10 (0.7%) in the elective group (P < 0.001). However, there was no significant difference between emergent and elective repairs in long-term complications. Emergent hernia repair is associated with increased mortality rates, early complications, and longer length of stay; however, long-term outcomes are equivalent to elective cases. These data suggest that technical outcomes for emergent repairs approach those of elective operations.