The aim of this study was to define pre-operative echocardiographic data and explore if postoperative indices of cardiac function after open abdominal aortic surgery were affected by the anaesthetic regimen. We hypothesised that volatile anaesthesia would improve indices of cardiac function compared with total intravenous anaesthesia. Transthoracic echocardiography was performed pre-operatively in 78 patients randomly assigned to volatile anaesthesia and 76 to total intravenous anaesthesia, and compared with postoperative data. Pre-operatively, 16 patients (10%) had left ventricular ejection fraction < 46%. In 138 patients with normal left ventricular ejection fraction, 5/8 (62%) with left ventricular dilatation and 41/130 (33%) without left ventricular dilatation had evidence of left ventricular diastolic dysfunction (p < 0.001). Compared with pre-operative findings, significant increases in left ventricular end-diastolic volume, left atrial maximal volume, cardiac output, velocity of early mitral flow and early myocardial relaxation occurred postoperatively (all p < 0.001). The ratio of the velocity of early mitral flow to early myocardial relaxation remained unchanged. There were no significant differences in postoperative echocardiographic findings between patients anaesthetised with volatile anaesthesia or total intravenous anaesthesia. Patients had an iatrogenic surplus of approximately 4.1 l of fluid volume by the first postoperative day. N-terminal prohormone of brain natriuretic peptide increased on the first postoperative day (p < 0.001) and remained elevated after 30 days (p < 0.001) in both groups. Although postoperative echocardiographic alterations were most likely to be related to increased preload due to a substantial iatrogenic surplus of fluid, a component of peri-operative myocardial ischaemia cannot be excluded. Our hypothesis that volatile anaesthesia improved indices of cardiac function compared with total intravenous anaesthesia could not be verified.