During a spinal tap (lumbar puncture), a healthcare provider withdraws cerebrospinal fluid. This test can detect meningitis, leukemia and other illness. Providers also use spinal taps to give spinal anesthesia (epidural) and medications. Some people develop spinal headaches after a spinal tap, but the overall procedure risks are low.
To perform a spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture), your healthcare provider inserts a needle into your lower back to get a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebrospinal fluid is the clear liquid that surrounds your spine and brain. A lab tests the fluid sample to check:
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Your healthcare provider may perform a spinal tap to test for:
Healthcare providers also use spinal taps to:
You may get a blood test before the procedure to ensure that your blood clots normally. You should follow your healthcare provider’s instructions on what to do before the procedure. Generally, you need to:
Depending on your situation, a spinal tap may take place as an outpatient procedure (you go home the same day) or in the hospital. If you have an outpatient procedure, someone needs to drive you home afterward. The procedure takes 15 to 30 minutes.
For the procedure, your provider may have you lie on your left side with your knees pulled up to your chin (fetal position). Or you may sit and lean forward with your arms and head resting on a table.
During a spinal tap, your provider:
After your provider finishes the procedure, you’ll need to stay in this fetal position (or lie down if you were seated) for at least one hour. You should get plenty of rest and fluids afterward. With your provider’s OK, you may be able to return to work. But you should avoid strenuous exercise or activities for 24 to 48 hours.
Spinal tap complications, such as infections and bleeding, are rare. There’s no risk of spinal cord damage. The cord sits higher than the area of the lumbar spine area where the spinal tap takes place.
About 10% of people who get a spinal tap develop a spinal headache (intense pain when sitting or standing). This headache may come on within hours or several days after the procedure. The pain typically goes away on its own in a couple of days, but it may linger for a week or more. Along with the spinal headache, you may experience:
The timing of spinal tap results depends on the reason you had the test. If you need an emergency spinal tap to check for life-threatening conditions like a brain bleed or meningitis, lab results will come quickly. Otherwise, your provider should get results within a week.
Spinal headaches typically go away in a few days. Over-the-counter pain medicines, staying hydrated, and drinking caffeinated beverage scan help. You should call your healthcare provider if the headache is extremely painful and lasts more than a few days, or you experience:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A procedure that involves the spine may sound scary, but spinal taps carry little risk. Talk to your healthcare provider about any concerns. If you develop a spinal headache after the procedure, your provider can offer suggestions to ease the pain.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/23/2020.
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