Spinal fluid is a liquid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. Spinal fluid helps cushion your brain if you hit your head or fall. Spinal fluid moves freely around your brain and spinal cord. Eventually, the fluid enters your blood vessels.
Many brain problems cause changes in your spinal fluid. For example, a burst blood vessel in the brain causes red blood cells to appear in your spinal fluid.
What is a spinal tap?
A spinal tap is a test to remove a sample of your spinal fluid. It's sometimes called a lumbar puncture. Doctors do tests on the fluid to look for problems such as:
Bleeding in your brain or spinal cord
During a spinal tap, doctors numb your skin and then put a long, thin needle in your lower back to get the sample of spinal fluid. They take about a tablespoon (15 milliliters) of fluid. Your brain quickly makes more fluid.
Doctors test spinal fluid for many substances, including:
White blood cells
Red blood cells
About 1 in 10 people get a headache after a spinal tap. This headache may last a few days to a few weeks.
To remove a sample of fluid, a doctor puts a small, hollow needle between two bones in the lower spine. The fluid is sent to a lab for testing.
Why would I need a spinal tap?
Doctors do a spinal tap to see if you might have:
A brain infection such as meningitis Bacterial Meningitis Meningitis is an infection of the thin layer of tissue that covers your brain and spinal cord. This layer of tissue is called the meninges. In bacterial meningitis, infection of the meninges... read more or encephalitis Encephalitis Encephalitis is inflammation of your brain, usually caused by an infection. Encephalitis can be caused by a virus directly infecting your brain or when a virus or a misguided immune reaction... read more
Sometimes, spinal taps are done for other reasons, such as:
To get medicine quickly to your brain, spinal cord, or the area around them
What happens during a spinal tap?
For a spinal tap:
You lie curled up on your side, so your knees are toward your chest
Sometimes doctors have you sit up leaning forward
Your doctor numbs your back with a shot of numbing medicine
You lie still as your doctor puts a thin, hollow needle into your lower back, between your backbones
The needle goes into the area around the spinal cord to draw out a small amount of spinal fluid
A spinal tap takes about 15 minutes. Your doctor may have you lie down for a while afterward.
What are the problems with a spinal tap?
Some people (about 1 in 10) get a headache after having a spinal tap. This is called a low-pressure headache Low-Pressure Headache Low-pressure headaches result when cerebrospinal fluid is removed during a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) or leaks out because of a cyst or tear in one of the layers of tissues that cover the... read more . It usually goes away in a few days or a few weeks. Doctors can treat it by injecting a small amount of blood into the area of the spinal tap. This usually eases the headache.
You don't have to worry that the needle will poke into your spinal cord. Doctors do the spinal tap just below the point where your spinal cord ends.