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Lumbar Puncture

What is a lumbar puncture?

A lumbar puncture is a procedure used to get a sample of spinal fluid from the area around your spine. It is also used to inject medicine or dye into the area. The term lumbar refers to the lower part of your back, between your tailbone and your ribs. A needle is put into your lower back between the bones of your spine to get the fluid sample or put in medicine or dye. This test is also called a spinal tap.

Spinal taps are safe. Most babies and young children do not like medical tests or needles and will cry during the test, but a spinal tap is no more painful than drawing blood.

When is it used?

This procedure is used to:

  • Check for infections, diseases, or other problems that may affect your child’s brain and spinal cord
  • Inject an anesthetic to numb your child’s lower body. This may be done so that your child will not feel any pain during surgery or other procedures. This is known as spinal anesthesia, or “a spinal.”
  • Inject drugs to treat cancer or diseases of the nervous system
  • Inject dye for X-rays or a CT scan of the spine

How do I prepare my child for a lumbar puncture?

Often no preparation is needed unless your healthcare provider gives you special instructions.

  • Your child may or may not need to take her regular medicines the day of the procedure. Some medicines (like aspirin) may increase your child’s risk of bleeding during or after the procedure. Tell your provider about all medicines and supplements that your child takes. Ask your provider if your child needs to avoid taking any medicine or supplements before the procedure.
  • Tell your provider if your child has any food or medicine allergies.
  • Follow any other instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
  • Ask any questions you have before the procedure. You should understand what your child’s provider is going to do. You have the right to make decisions about your child’s healthcare and to give permission for any tests or procedures.

What happens during the procedure?

A lumber puncture may be done in a clinic, surgery center, or hospital. It usually takes less than 20 minutes.

Before the procedure your child may be given medicine to help her relax, but she will usually be awake during the procedure. Then she will be given a local anesthetic with a small needle to numb the area. Sometimes, a numbing cream may also be used on the skin.

Older children may sit on the exam table and lean their head and shoulders forward onto a table or pillow. Babies and younger children will lie on one side with their knees bent and pulled up, with their chin touching their chest. Since your child must lie or sit very still, someone may need to hold her during the procedure. These positions allows the bones in your child's spine to spread far enough apart for the healthcare provider to insert a needle into the area where a sample of spinal fluid can be removed or medicine or dye can be injected.

What happens after the procedure?

Your child may need to lie flat for an hour or so after the test. If your child was given medicine to help her relax, she will be watched carefully until she is fully awake and alert. This may take up to a couple hours.

If your child was given dye, drinking a lot of fluids after the procedure helps her body get rid of the dye.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • If there are activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to your normal activities
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

What are the risks of this procedure?

Every procedure or treatment has risks. Some possible risks of this procedure include:

  • Your child may have problems with anesthesia.
  • Your child may have headaches if fluid leaks from the needle insertion site.
  • Your child may have infection or bleeding.
  • Other parts of your child’s body may be injured during the procedure.

Ask your healthcare provider how the risks apply to your child. Be sure to discuss any other questions or concerns that you may have.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-07-22
Last reviewed: 2014-07-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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