Pathophysiology and pharmacologic treatment of acute spinal cord injury

Spine J. 2004 Jul-Aug;4(4):451-64. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2003.07.007.


Background context: The past three decades have witnessed increasing interest in strategies to improve neurologic function after spinal cord injury. As progress is made in our understanding of the pathophysiologic events that occur after acute spinal cord injury, neuroprotective agents are being developed.

Purpose: Clinicians who treat acute spinal cord injuries should have a basic understanding of the pathophysiologic processes that are initiated after the spinal cord has been injured. A familiarity with the literature on which the current use of methylprednisolone is based is also essential.

Study design/setting: Literature review.

Methods: Literature review of animal data on pathophysiologic mechanisms, and of both animal and human trials of neuroprotective agents.

Results: The mechanical forces imparted to the spinal cord cause primary damage to the neural tissue, but a complex cascade of pathophysiologic processes that imperil adjacent, initially spared tissue to secondary damage rapidly follows this. Attenuating this secondary damage with neuroprotective strategies requires an understanding of these pathophysiologic processes. Many researchers are investigating the role of such processes as ischemia, inflammation, ionic homeostasis and apoptotic cell death in the secondary injury cascade, with hopes of developing specific therapies to diminish their injurious effects. Beyond methylprednisolone, a number of other pharmacologic treatments have been investigated for the acute treatment of spinal cord injury, and even more are on the horizon as potential therapies.

Conclusions: This review summarizes some of the important pathophysiologic processes involved in secondary damage after spinal cord injury and discusses a number of pharmacologic therapies that have either been studied or have future potential for this devastating injury.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use*
  • Cyclooxygenase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Injury Severity Score
  • Male
  • Neuroprotective Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Paraplegia / drug therapy
  • Paraplegia / physiopathology
  • Quadriplegia / drug therapy
  • Quadriplegia / physiopathology
  • Risk Assessment
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / diagnosis
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / drug therapy*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Cyclooxygenase Inhibitors
  • Neuroprotective Agents