Abstract Background Axons within the mature mammalian central nervous system fail to regenerate following injury, usually resulting in long-lasting motor and sensory deficits. Studies involving transplantation of adult neurons into white matter implicate glial scar-associated factors in regeneration failure. However, these studies cannot distinguish between the effects of these factors and disruption of the spatial organization of cells and molecular factors (disrupted geometry). Since white matter can support or inhibit neurite growth depending on the geometry of the fiber tract, the present study sought to determine whether disrupted geometry is sufficient to inhibit neurite growth. Results Embryonic chick sympathetic neurons were cultured on unfixed longitudinal cryostat sections of mature rat spinal cord or sciatic nerve that had been crushed with forceps ex vivo then immediately frozen to prevent glial scarring. Neurite growth on uncrushed portions of spinal cord white matter or sciatic nerve was extensive and highly parallel with the longitudinal axis of the fiber tract but did not extend onto crushed portions. Moreover, neurite growth from neurons attached directly to crushed white matter or nerve tissue was shorter and less parallel compared with neurite growth on uncrushed tissue. In contrast, neurite growth appeared to be unaffected by crushed spinal cord gray matter. Conclusions These observations suggest that glial scar-associated factors are not necessary to block axonal growth at sites of injury. Disruption of fiber tract geometry, perhaps involving myelin-associated neurite-growth inhibitors, may be sufficient to pose a barrier to regenerating axons in spinal cord white matter and peripheral nerves.