Spinal cord injury (SCI) results in progressive waves of secondary injuries, which via the activation of a barrage of noxious pathological mechanisms exacerbate the injury to the spinal cord. Secondary injuries are associated with edema, inflammation, excitotoxicity, excessive cytokine release, caspase activation and cell apoptosis. This study was aimed at investigating the possible neuroprotective effects of 6-shogaol purified from Zingiber officinale by comparing an experimental SCI rat group with SCI control rats. Shogaol attenuated apoptotic cell death, including poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activity, and reduced astrogliosis and hypomyelination which occurs in areas of active cell death in the spinal cords of SCI rats. The foremost protective effect of shogaol in SCI would therefore be manifested in the suppression of the acute secondary apoptotic cell death. However, it does not attenuate active microglia and macrophage infiltration. This finding is supported by a lack of histopathological changes in the areas of the lesion in the shogaol-treated SCI rats. Moreover, shogaol-mediated neuroprotection has been linked with shogaol's attenuation of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase, p-SAPK/JNK and signal transducer, and with transcription-3 activation. Our results demonstrate that shogaol administrated immediately after SCI significantly diminishes functional deficits. The shogaol-treated group recovered hindlimb reflexes more rapidly and a higher percentage of these rats regained responses compared with the untreated injured rats. The overall hindlimb functional improvement of hindlimbs, as measured by the Basso, Beattie and Bresnahan scale, was significantly enhanced in the shogaol-treated group relative to the SCI control rats. Our data show that the therapeutic outcome of shogaol probably results from its comprehensive effects of blocking apoptotic cell death, resulting in the protection of white matter, oligodendrocytes and neurons, and inhibiting astrogliosis. Our finding that the administration of shogaol prevents secondary pathological events in traumatic SCIs and promotes recovery of motor functions in an animal model raises the issue of whether shogaol could be used therapeutically in humans after SCI.