A lumbar puncture is a test to check the fluid that circulates around the brain and spinal cord. This is called the cerebrospinal fluid or CSF.
Why you have a lumbar puncture
Certain types of brain tumours can spread from the brain to the CSF. So doctors might take some of the CSF to test for tumour cells. They use a needle to take a sample of the CSF from your lower back.
Sometimes, the pressure inside the brain and spinal canal (the intracranial pressure) is too high. It might not be safe to do a lumbar puncture if this happens.
You normally have this test in the outpatient department under local anaesthetic. This means you are awake but the area is numb.
Preparing for your lumbar puncture
Check your appointment letter for how to prepare for your lumbar puncture test. You are usually able to eat and drink before your test. Take your medications as normal.
Children and some adults may have this under a general anaesthetic (GA) or with sedation. You have to stop eating and drinking for some time before the test if you're having a GA.
Your doctor will give you information about the procedure and ask you to sign a consent form. This is a good time to ask any questions you may have.
When you arrive at the clinic a staff member asks you to take off your upper clothing and put on a hospital gown.
You usually lie on your side with your knees tucked up into your chest. It's important to stay as still as you can during the test, so make sure you are comfortable before it starts.
The doctor or nurse drapes some sterile covers over you. Then they clean the area with antiseptic fluid, which can feel cold.
You have an injection of anaesthetic into the area. When the area is numb, the doctor or nurse puts the lumbar puncture needle in through the skin. It goes into the small of your back and into the space around the spinal cord. You might feel some pressure when the needle goes in.
Once it's in the right place, the fluid drips out into a pot. This only takes a few seconds.
Your doctor or nurse takes the needle out and puts a dressing or plaster on your back.
The whole test takes 20 to 30 minutes. It can be uncomfortable but it's not usually painful.
After your lumbar puncture
You lie flat for an hour or so after the test.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have a headache, so they can give you some pain killers. Lying flat and drinking plenty of fluids may relieve your headache. This may last for a couple of days so make sure you have pain killers to take home.
You will have a dressing on the skin where they did the test.
You can usually go home the same day.
A lumbar puncture is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test.
Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a lumbar puncture outweigh these possible risks.
If your headache doesn't get better contact your hospital team.
You might have lower back pain for a couple of days after the test. Contact your hospital team if the pain is severe.
This is very rare. Contact your hospital team if you have bleeding for more than 15 minutes.
This is very rare. Contact the hospital straight away if you:
- have a high temperature
- are being sick
- are sensitive to bright light
- have tingling or numbness in your legs
- have a severe headache
Getting your results
You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks.
Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them. Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.
You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can contact for information if you need to. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.
We have more information on tests, treatment and support if you have been diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumour.