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Having a Lumbar Puncture

Side view cross section of lower spine showing needle inserted for lumbar puncture.
During a lumbar puncture, a sample of cerebrosprinal fluid (CSF) is removed near the base of the spine. The spinal cord is not touched.
A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) may be used to help diagnose certain problems in your brain or spinal cord. Prepare for your test as instructed. From start to finish, your procedure will take about 30-60 minutes. The test may be done in a medical office.This test may be done in an acute care setting like the emergency room or the hospital. Occasionally, the procedure is done in a radiology suite with X-ray guidance. Your doctor may screen you for bleeding disorders and may order a head CT or MRI before the procedure to ensure there is no increased risk of performing the procedure.

During the test

You will lie on your side with your knees drawn into your chest. (This is called the fetal position.) Or, you may be asked to sit bent forward, with your chin down. First, your low back will be wiped with a special cleanser. It will then be injected with a numbing medication. Then, the doctor will insert a sterile needle into the sac that contains the spinal fluid. Despite the use of the local anesthetic, you may feel some pain or pressure when this happens. Try to remain still. And be sure to do as you’re asked. Some spinal fluid will be withdrawn though the needle. The needle is then removed. Finally, a small bandage is placed over the puncture site. You may be asked to lie still for a short time before you leave.

After the test

  • When you’re able to leave, have an adult family member or friend drive you home. 

  • When you get home, rest as directed by your healthcare provider. 

  • If you get a headache, lying flat and drinking plenty of fluids may help relieve it. The headache is typically positional and gets better over time. You may also want to take an over-the-counter pain reliever, but avoid aspirin. Drinking caffeinated beverages, such as soda, coffee, or tea, can help relieve a headache after a lumbar puncture.

  • The day after your lumbar puncture, you can remove your bandage. 

  • Your provider will tell you when the results of your lumbar puncture are ready.

Call your doctor if you have:

  • A severe headache or a headache that lasts 2 or more days

  • Pain in your back that persists

  • Tingling in your groin or legs

  • Fever

  • Change in bowel or urination functions

© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.