Your doctor has ordered a test for you called a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap). If you are allergic to novocaine, please let your doctor know. If you have had previous back surgery, please let your doctor know. If you are taking a blood thinner please let your doctor know. This handout explains what will happen before, during, and after the test. Your nurse will go over this sheet with you. Please ask questions. If you have questions or concerns after you go home, please call the numbers listed at the end of this handout.
What Is a Lumbar Puncture?
A lumbar puncture involves placing a needle between the bones of the lower back, about 2 inches below the end of the spinal cord. The purpose of the spinal tap is to test the fluid, known as cerebrospinal fluid or CSF, which flows around the spinal cord and the brain. This clear colorless fluid acts as a shock absorber for the central nervous system. Tests on CSF can tell many things about your body.
You will be asked to lie down or sit for the test. You may lie on your side with your knees drawn up and your head bent down. Or you may sit on the edge of the bed while leaning onto a bedside table. The doctor will tell you which position to take. You must remain as still as you can during the procedure.
The doctor will decide where to insert the needle by feeling the spaces between the bones in your lower back. The doctor will put on sterile gloves and clean your back. Once your back is clean, a sterile towel will be draped over your back. Do not touch your back or the sterile towel.
Next you will receive a shot to numb the site where the puncture will be. This is much like the dentist giving you Novocain before filling your teeth. The site will become numb in less than a minute. Then the doctor will insert a needle between the bones at the chosen spot. You will feel pressure as the doctor inserts the needle. Let the doctor or nurse know if you feel any pain. Breathe deeply and slowly.
The doctor will attach a special gauge to the needle to measure the fluid pressure. Then, some of the CSF will drain into several tubes. The CSF will come out through the needle drop by drop. Once enough fluid has been taken for testing, the needle will be pulled out. A band-aid may be placed over the site. The entire test will last about 20 to 30 minutes.
After the Test
You will need to lie flat in bed for 1-4 hours so that you don’t get a headache. If you are an outpatient you will need to be watched in the Neurology Clinic or Ambulatory Surgery. You may lie on your side, back, or abdomen, but do not lift your head for long periods of time. Please bring a caffeinated beverage and a salty snack to your appointment. You will be asked to drink the fluids and eat the snack after the test. These fluids will help to replace the CSF fluid that was taken for tests. Your nurse will check the puncture site for redness or swelling.
The length of time before you have the results of your test varies. Some results can be obtained in 1 to 2 days. Others may take weeks.
If you are an outpatient, ask the doctor who did your lumbar puncture if you need to schedule a return visit with him to go over the test results or if you should follow up with a different doctor to obtain the results.
- Keep resting. Plan to do quiet things like reading, watching TV, etc.
- Recline in bed or on a sofa, until the next morning.
- Keep drinking plenty of fluids. It is best if they contain caffeine.
- The morning after the test, you may take a bath or shower and remove the band-aid. You may also resume your normal routine.
- If you get a headache after starting activity, return to resting and increase your intake of fluids with caffeine.
- You may take any over the counter analgesics (ibuprofen, Tylenol, naproxen) you may have at home for any discomfort that you experience.
- No heavy lifting or strenuous exercise for one week to allow the puncture site to heal.
If you have
- A severe headache that is not relieved with aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol®).
- A stiff neck.
- Nausea or vomiting.
If you were seen in Neurology Clinic, Monday – Friday, 8 am to 4:30: (608) 263-5442
After hours, this will give you the paging operator. Ask for the neurology resident on call. Leave your name and phone number with the area code. The doctor will call you back.
If you were seen in Surgery Clinic, call (608) 263-7502. After hours, follow the same instructions as above, but ask for the neurosurgery resident on call.
If you live out of the area, please call 1-800-323-8942 and ask for the correct extension.
The Spanish version of this Health Facts for You is #7189.
The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Last Updated: 04/21/2011
Copyright © 02/09/2010 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4229
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