From 1985 to 1990 five Model Regional Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Care Systems participated in a collaborative effort to prospectively document the occurrence of adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), aspiration, atelectasis, bronchitis, bronchospasm, lung abscess, pleural effusion, pneumonia, pneumo/hemothorax, pulmonary edema, pulmonary thromboembolism, tracheitis, upper respiratory infection, and ventilatory failure in patients admitted within 48 hours of SCI with a level of C1-T12 and Frankel Grade A, B, or C. The mean, standard deviation and range was calculated for the time of onset and duration of each complication. Of the 261 patients who entered the study, 175 (67%) experience 544 respiratory complications with atelectasis being the most common (36.4%) followed by pneumonia (31.4%) and ventilatory failure (22.6%). These complications occurred on the average of 17.7 days, 24.5 days and 4.5 days postinjury and lasted 12.8 days, 15.5 days, and 35.9 days, respectively. Twenty-two percent, 47%, and 31% had injury levels at C1-4, C5-8, T1-12, respectively with the majority being Frankel Grade A (78%). Eighty-four percent of C1-4, 60% of the C5-8, and 65% of the T1-12 had respiratory complications. Statistical analysis revealed complications to be significantly greater (p < .05) and of longer duration (p < .05) for the C1-4 group. Ventilatory failure and aspiration were the earliest to occur (at 4.5 days) for all SCI patients. Surprisingly, however, complications overall occurred significantly sooner (p < .05) in the T1-12 group. In conclusion, patients who sustain SCI have a high incidence of respiratory complications; however, some occur earlier and more frequently depending on the level of injury.