Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is a major public health problem for which there is still only limited treatment available. The National Acute Spinal Cord Injury Study-2 (NASCIS-2) and -3 clinical trials demonstrated that the use of acute pharmacotherapy with methylprednisolone can attenuate the secondary injury cascade if administered within 8 hours of acute SCI. However, no trial has been performed to examine whether acute surgical decompressive procedures within this critical 8-hour time window can improve patients' neurological outcome. The purpose of the current prospective Surgical Treatment for Acute Spinal Cord Injury Study (STASCIS) pilot study was to determine the feasibility of obtaining a radiological diagnosis of spinal canal compromise of 25% or more and to perform spinal cord (C3-T1) decompressive procedures by 8 hours postinjury. One of the following three decompressive methods was used: 1) traction alone; 2) traction and surgery; or 3) surgery alone. Twenty-six patients from eight North American centers were entered into the study between 1996 and 1997. Significant difficulties were encountered in many centers in performing immediate magnetic resonance imaging examination in patients with acute SCI. Fewer than 10% of acute cervical SCI patients could be enrolled into this protocol mainly because the combination of the required time for rescue, resuscitation, transport, imaging study, and surgical preparation exceeded the 8-hour injury-to-decompressive surgery window. Eleven patients underwent decompressive procedures initially by being placed in traction at a mean time of 10.9 hours postinjury. Those patients not undergoing this procedure underwent decompressive surgery at a mean time of 40.1 hours. However, the surgical decompressive procedure was completed within 12 hours in seven patients. As a result of these findings, several major changes have been made to the STASCIS protocol for early decompressive therapy.