Interest in systemic and local hypothermia extends back over many decades, and both have been investigated as potential neuroprotective interventions in a number of clinical settings, including traumatic brain injury, stroke, cardiac arrest, and both intracranial and thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysm surgery. The recent use of systemic hypothermia in an injured National Football League football player has focused a great deal of attention on the potential use of hypothermia in acute spinal cord injury.

To provide spinal clinicians with an overview of the biological rationale for using hypothermia, the past studies and current clinical applications of hypothermia, and the basic science studies and clinical reports of the use of hypothermia in acute traumatic spinal cord injury.

A review of the English literature on hypothermia was performed, starting with the original clinical description of the use of systemic hypothermia in 1940. Pertinent basic science and clinical articles were identified using PubMed and the bibliographies of the articles.

Each article was reviewed to provide a concise description of hypothermia's biological rationale, current clinical applications, complications, and experience as a neuroprotective intervention in spinal cord injury.

Hypothermia has a multitude of physiologic effects. From a neuroprotective standpoint, hypothermia slows basic enzymatic activity, reduces the cell's energy requirements, and thus maintains Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) concentrations. As such, systemic hypothermia has been shown to be neuroprotective in patients after cardiac arrest, although its benefit in other clinical settings such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, and intracranial aneurysm surgery has not been demonstrated. Animal studies of local and systemic hypothermia in traumatic spinal cord injury models have produced mixed results. Local hypothermia was actively studied in the 1970s in human acute traumatic spinal cord injury, but no case series of this intervention has been published since 1984. No peer-reviewed clinical literature could be found, which describes the application of systemic hypothermia in acute traumatic spinal cord injury.

Animal studies of acute traumatic spinal cord injury have not revealed a consistent neuroprotective benefit to either systemic or local hypothermia. Human studies of local hypothermia after acute traumatic spinal cord injury have not been published for over two decades. No peer-reviewed studies describing the use of systemic hypothermia in this setting could be found. Although a cogent biological rationale may exist for the use of local or systemic hypothermia in acute traumatic spinal cord injury, there is little scientific literature currently available to substantiate the clinical use of either in human patients.