The acute traumatic central cord syndrome (ATCCS) is commonly stated to result from an injury which affects primarily the center of the spinal cord and is frequently hemorrhagic. To test the validity of this widely disseminated hypothesis, the magnetic resonance images [MRI] of 11 consecutive cases of ATCCS caused by closed injury to the spine were analyzed and correlated with the gross pathological and histological features of 3 cervical spinal cords obtained at post mortem from patients with ATCCS, including 2 of patients studied by MRI. The MRI studies were performed acutely (18 h to 2 days after injury) in 7 patients and subacutely (3-10 days after injury) in 4. Ten of the 11 patients had pre-existing spondylosis and/or canal stenosis. The 11th suffered a cervical fracture. All patients exhibited hyperintense signal within the parenchyma of the cervical spinal cord on gradient echo MRI. None showed MRI features characteristic of hemorrhage on T1-weighted spin echo or T2-weighted gradient echo studies. Gross and histological examination of the necropsy specimens showed no evidence of blood or blood products within the cord parenchyma: the primary finding was diffuse disruption of axons, especially within the lateral columns of the cervical cord in the region occupied by the corticospinal tracts. The central gray matter was intact. In patients with ATCCS, the predominant loss of motor function in the distal muscles of the upper limbs may reflect the importance of the corticospinal tract for hand and finger function in the primate. In this study, the MRI and pathological observations indicate that ATCCS is predominantly a white matter injury and that intramedullary hemorrhage is not a necessary feature of the syndrome; indeed, it is probably an uncommon event in ATCCS. We suggest that the most common mechanism of injury in ATCCS may be direct compression of the cervical spinal cord by buckling of the ligamenta flava into an already narrowed cervical spinal canal; this would explain the predominance of axonal injury in the white matter of the lateral columns.