This study was performed to achieve a better definition of the nature of the disability in multiple sclerosis (MS). Axial spinal cord magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at C5 was obtained in 15 patients with benign MS, 17 patients with secondary progressive MS and 10 healthy controls. Patients with secondary progressive MS had smaller spinal cord cross-sectional area (P = 0.01) and transverse diameter (P = 0.006) than patients with benign MS. The degree of disability was inversely correlated with both the cross-sectional area (r = -0.6, P = 0.0018) and transverse diameter (r = -0.5, P = 0.0032) of the cord. Spinal cord atrophy was found in 7 (41%) patients with secondary progressive MS and in 2 (13%) with benign MS. These findings suggest that destructive pathology within MS lesions might play a relevant role in the development of disability in MS.