In the surgical treatment of an aortic aneurysm, disruption of the blood supply to the spinal cord, resulting in paraplegia and anaesthesia below the level of involvement, is a dreaded complication. Occasionally, when an aortic aneurysm compresses a major vessel that supplies the anterior spinal artery, spinal cord ischaemia and paraplegia can occur before surgery. In the case presented here, however, preoperative paraplegia appears to have resulted from direct spinal destruction by an infected aortic aneurysm that was originally diagnosed as a spinal abscess. The patient underwent operative repair, but her aorta was so friable that the sutures would not hold. Despite repeat surgery, her condition rapidly proved fatal. This case shows that, in patients with a suspected spinal abscess, computer tomographic scanning and angiography should be performed to confirm the diagnosis and to rule out other pathological conditions. An accurate pre-operative diagnosis will permit adequate operative planning and prevent catastrophic results.