Victims of spinal cord injuries who undergo surgery within 24 hours are less likely to suffer paralysis, a new study suggests.

In fact, the timing of treatment for victims of spinal cord injuries can have a significant impact on the eventual outcome of their recovery, according to multi-clinical trials undertaken by Toronto's Krembil Neuroscience Centre.

Key findings also show that a patient is twice as likely to experience a "major neurological recovery" when they have surgery within a day of their injury.

"The differences that we are seeing with early decompression surgery are very significant and the results have a major impact on a person's life," said lead author and neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Fehlings.

The importance of a quick surgery is to ease pressure on the injured spinal cord, doctors say.

In the study, half of the patients waited the usual two days for their conditions to stabilize before undergoing decompression surgery.

"We are seeing about 1 in 5 people walking away from an injury they might not have otherwise," said Fehlings.

The report was spurred by concerns that early decompression surgery on patients suffering spinal injuries could cause complications later on. The traditional wisdom among some practitioners was to avoid too much surgery too soon.

But with improved technology like MRIs, better surgical tools and refined techniques, the study's authors say that a "new standard of care for patients" is on the horizon.

"Since timing is such an important factor for treating spinal cord injuries, we need to ensure that patients can get timely access to neurosurgical care," said Fehlings.

"This could mean the creation of neurosurgical centres of excellence, similar to stroke centres in Ontario."

For patients like Glen Williams, the study's findings have proved to be life-changing.

Four years ago, Williams slipped on a patch of ice and broke his neck. Once he realized he was paralyzed, he feared he would never walk again.

"It was the scariest day of my life," he said.

While Williams knew that he was in for the fight of his life if he hoped to regain mobility, he quickly signed up to be part of the study probing the timeliness of spinal surgery.

Today, he is mobile, and he traces his good fortune to the surgery.

"I am part of the evidence that it does work," he said.

According to the study's authors, between 1,500 and 1,700 Canadians suffer spinal cord injuries each year.

The Rick Hansen Foundation notes that such injuries cost the health care system $3 billion annually.

With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip