What is a Lumbar Puncture?

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  • Written By: Nat Robinson
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2019
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A lumbar puncture is a medical procedure commonly known as a spinal tap. The procedure involves using a needle to remove cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the back. Cerebrospinal fluid protects the brain and spinal cord by acting as a cushion surrounding the internal structures. Generally, the needle is inserted into the lumber, or lower portion of the back. The procedure is most often performed in a hospital, although, it may be done in an outpatient facility as well.

Doctors may use a lumbar puncture to diagnose an illness. The procedure is often done to diagnose central nervous system diseases. It may also be used to confirm suspected bleeding in the brain. An infection such as meningitis, inflammation of the nervous system and cancers of the spinal cord and brain may equally be confirmed with this procedure. People with a nervous system disease may have lumbar punctures more frequently.

Sometimes, a lumbar puncture will be done to administer medicines. Spinal anesthetics, for example, are sometimes given this way. In some cases, dyes needed for an diagnostic test on the spine may be injected by performing this procedure. Often, a lumbar puncture is done as a therapeutic procedure to relieve pressure from the brain or skull. Once cerebrospinal fluid is removed, it is generally sent straight to a laboratory to be examined with scrutiny.


Normally, great preparations are not required for this type of medical procedure. Individuals taking regular medicines may be advised to stop certain prescriptions before having a lumbar puncture. Some doctors may precede this procedure with a computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests may be done for a general view of the brain or spine. In general, doctors will let an individual know if he or she will need to do anything in particular before the procedure.

Patients will wear a hospital gown for the procedure. An antiseptic soap may be used to clean the portion of the back where the needle will be inserted. Usually, an anesthetic will be injected to numb the area. During a lumbar puncture, a needle is inserted into the lumbar and cerebrospinal fluid is collected. Some patients may be asked to position themselves in a certain way to make the withdrawal of the fluid easier.

Doctors commonly advise patients to lie down and take it easy after the procedure. Particularly strenuous activities will need to be avoided the entire day. The greatest complaint following a lumbar puncture is generally pain in the back or a headache. For either of these issues, taking a pain reliever may be advised. Although if the pain grows severe and additional complications occur, the doctor should be called.


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