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What Is a Spinal Tap Procedure?

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Updated May 16, 2014

A spinal tap, also referred to as a lumbar puncture, is a procedure performed by your healthcare provider in order to collect and study the clear fluid, or cerebral spinal fluid, that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The test is sometimes performed to determine whether an infection, tumor, or inflammation is causing your seizures.

Why Is My Healthcare Provider Performing a Spinal Tap?

This procedure is sometimes necessary in order to help your healthcare provider determine whether you have an infection of the brain and spinal cord, and to detect any inflammatory processes or certain cancers of the brain and spinal cord. A spinal tap can also be used to give antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs and anesthetics. Treating any underlying inflammation or infection can reduce the number of seizures you are having.

How Do I Prepare For a Spinal Tap?

Preparing for a spinal tap is fairly easy. Before this procedure, your healthcare provider will ask you about your medical history, including questions regarding your medical health, medication history (including herbal and other natural remedies), allergies and other conditions, such as a bleeding disorder or pregnancy status.

How Is a Spinal Tap Performed?

A spinal tap is usually performed in the emergency room or in the hospital at your bedside. During the procedure, you'll lie on the bed on your side, with your knees bent close to your chest, similar to a fetal position. Your doctor will clean your lower back (lumbar area) thoroughly in order to prevent an infection at the injection site. A numbing medication is applied on the skin around the needle insertion so that you won't feel much pain. Next, a long, sterile needle is inserted into the spinal canal. If the procedure is performed correctly, the cerebral spinal fluid will come out of the needle, and cerebral spinal fluid will be collected for further analysis. Normal cerebral spinal fluid should be clear and contain protein, glucose, a few cells and a normal pressure.

What Should I Expect Having a Spinal Tap?

You may experience pain and slight bleeding at the site of injection. Headache is the most common complaint of a spinal tap and could occur within 48 hours after the procedure.

Are There Any Complications To Having a Spinal Tap?

Complications are usually minimal. However, if for any reason you develop fever, chill, headache, stiff neck, drainage or bleeding from the site of spinal tap — and weakness, tingling or numbness below the puncture site, notify your healthcare provider immediately.

Source:

Ellenby MS, Tegtmeyer K, Lai S et al. Lumbar Puncture. N Engl J Med 2006; 355:e12.

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