Traumatic spinal cord injury results in direct physical damage to structures and the generation of local factors contributing to secondary pathogenesis. In the present study, we investigated changes in polyamine metabolism after spinal cord compression injury in the rat. This is a stress induced metabolic pathway, of which an activation may indicate both, secondary pathogenesis or induction of neuroprotective response. Ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) activity, the rate limiting step of polyamine synthesis, and levels of the diamine putrescine, the product of ornithine decarboxylase reaction, were analyzed in control (non-laminectomized) animals and at 2 and 4 h after laminectomy or compression injury at the L4 segmental level. ODC activity was significantly increased 4 h after laminectomy in L4 and in adjacent L3 and L5 segments and compression to L4 produced a further increase 4 h after injury as compared with the intact control group. Putrescine levels were likewise significantly elevated to the same extend in the laminectomized and injured cord as compared with the intact control group. These findings demonstrate increased ODC and putrescine levels in the laminectomized and traumatized spinal cord and suggest that laminectomy may be an important 'priming event' that contributes to secondary injury after spinal cord compression injury.