Assessing a patient with clinical signs of acute spinal cord trauma is an emergency. A radiological work-up is crucial in determining management, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the modality of choice. It should therefore be performed immediately, preferably within 3 hours, even when plain radiography does not show an abnormality. By choosing an appropriate imaging protocol, it is possible to assess the spinal cord, joints, muscles, ligaments and bone marrow of the spine. Moreover, early MRI findings assist in determining functional prognosis. A major limitation to early MRI is that the examination is usually restricted to stable trauma patients because of the difficulties in monitoring ventilated patients during scanning. However, when an anaesthesiologist with experience in MRI and MR-compatible monitoring equipment is available, even these patients can be safely examined. MRI is also indicated for the evaluation of patients with late complications and sequelae following spinal cord trauma, since many of these chronic lesions are potentially treatable.