What is a Lumbar Drain?

wiseGEEK Writer

In some instances, people will suffer from conditions where they are having leakage of cerebral spinal fluid, or where too much of this fluid is building up in the brain. These circumstances could result in a variety of symptoms, including bad headache, confusion from pressure on the brain, or elevated risk for infection, meningitis, of the spinal fluid. Given these risk factors, doctors may recommend an in-hospital procedure called a lumbar drain, which helps to drain some of the excess fluid, via a tube inserted into the back.

Someone may get a headache or experience sudden dizziness following a lumbar drain.
Someone may get a headache or experience sudden dizziness following a lumbar drain.

Lumbar drain techniques are fairly similar from one hospital to another. One difference could be where the procedure is performed. Sometimes it’s done in an operating room, though patients typically are fully conscious. It could also be performed at the bedside of a patient or in hospital rooms designated to performing minor procedures.

Lumbar draining techniques may be performed in an operating room.
Lumbar draining techniques may be performed in an operating room.

The basic lumbar drain surgery takes a very short period of time. A doctor inserts a tube in between two of the vertebrae and then secures it in place with a stitch. Tape may be used too to keep the drain secure. The tube is then attached to a collecting “bag,” so that fluid drained can be assessed for volume. Placing a tube into the spine does sound painful, but this is greatly reduced by the use of local anesthetic to numb the area before tube insertion begins.

Nausea may be experienced following a lumbar drain.
Nausea may be experienced following a lumbar drain.

People can have some slight restrictions on activity while the tube is in place. They usually can’t shower, and they have to remain hospitalized as the lumbar drain continues to work. Sometimes minor complications of the procedure could occur, like getting a headache, or feeling suddenly nauseous or dizzy. Rarely, infection could occur from placing the lumbar drain. Since people are in the hospital they should report any unusual symptoms to their caretakers.

Typically a lumbar drain is used for approximately a week, but this may vary by patient and outcome of the draining fluid. If there still appears to be leakage or built up pressure, it could remain in a little longer. On the other hand if too much fluid is draining, the drain could be removed sooner.

Removal is typically a simple matter too. The stitch holding the drain is cut, the tube quickly removed, and a stitch might be needed to close the skin together. Depending on diagnosis, after the drain is taken out, some patients are able to go home. Others might need to stay in the hospital for more surgical or medical treatments. From time to time, lumbar drains are used as a means of assessing if a person would benefit from a surgical shunt, or continued leakage of cerebral spinal fluid may warrant surgery to stop the leak.

An overnight stay in the hospital may be required following a lumbar drain.
An overnight stay in the hospital may be required following a lumbar drain.

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Discussion Comments


the actual tubing itself doesn't hurt but the numbing medicine does. I have had the lumbar drain for six days now and the headaches you get from this thing are horrible.


How does the lumbar drain protocol differ from, say a thoracentesis procedure? I mean, isn't it basically the same thing, draining fluid?


@streamfinder -- Well, its not the most pleasant of procedures, but patients say that it's not horrible.

Basically, it's like a lumbar puncture procedure -- you have the surrounding skin numbed, and you're also given some pretty good painkillers.

As far as the concerns about managing the drain go, that won't be your mom's friend's problem. The nurses will take care of anything that needs to be done, including the draining, which takes place every four to six hours. This procedure is painless.

The nurses will also handle any changing of dressings that need to take place, as well as making sure the area remains clean.

If you're asking more about what your mother's friend should do while she has the drain in, the answer is, pretty much anything. Just not showering, but the article already said that. She'll probably be hooked up to an IV pole, but other than that, the lumbar drain won't impair her normal activities in any way.

Hope this helps!


Does the lumbar drain procedure hurt? Because that sounds like it would hurt like the dickens. My mother's friend at the nursing home is going to have to have a lumbar drain for aneurysm repair, so she asked me to look up some information on it.

Can you tell me a little more about the lumbar drain protocol, and what would be some good tips that an older lady could follow for lumbar drain management?

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