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To increase our knowledge of neurological recovery and functional outcome of patients with spinal cord injuries in order to make more successful rehabilitation programmes based on realistic goals.Descriptive analysis of data gathered in an information system.Rehabilitation centre in The Netherlands with special department for patients with spinal cord injuries.Fifty-five patients with traumatic spinal cord lesions admitted to the rehabilitation centre from 1988 to 1994.The functional improvement was presented in terms of progress in independence in nine daily activity skills. Independence was rated on a four-point scale.From admission to discharge, lesions in 100% of patients with tetraplegia and 96% of patients with paraplegia remained complete. Significant progress in independence was made in self-care, ambulation and bladder and bowel care. Differences were found in the extent of functional improvement between subgroups of patients with different levels and extent of lesion. Contrary to expectations based on theoretical models, patients with complete paraplegia did not achieve maximal independence in self-care. Independent walking was only attained by patients with incomplete lesions. Regarding outcome of bladder and bowel care, poor results were found, especially the independence in defaecation and toilet transfers.The results of this study provided more insight into the functional outcome of a group of patients with traumatic spinal cord injury. More research is needed to evaluate the rehabilitation programmes for these patients.