A total of 33 patients with renal cell carcinoma metastatic to the spine underwent spinal decompression over a 5-year period; 20 were operated on for neurologic dysfunction, and the remainder for pain alone. Surgery was performed anteriorly in 21, posteriorly in 9, and combined in 3 cases. The surgical approach was determined by the preoperative anatomic localization of the tumor. Of these patients 88% had fusions with instrumentation and polymethylmethacrylate; 88% of patients had partial or complete relief of pain; and 64% of bedridden patients subsequently were able to walk. Neurologic function improved in 60% of patients with a neurologic deficit; however, only 36% of incontinent patients regained bladder control. Survival averaged 8.0 +/- 1.5 months. Survival correlated with the degree of neurologic dysfunction and the presence of other known metastases. Recurrent cord compression developed in 49% of patients, usually at the same level; 9 of these 16 patients had repeat decompression, with similar operative results as the primary procedure in terms of pain and neurologic function. Blood loss was variable but often significant. Preoperative embolization appeared to be beneficial. Precise tumor localization preoperatively directing the surgical approach and better patient selection would likely improve results and decrease morbidity. Good palliation appeared to be achieved in regards to both pain relief and improved neurologic function.