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Epilepsy Health Center

Epilepsy and the Spinal Tap

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What Is a Spinal Tap?

One test for epilepsy is a spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture), a procedure in which fluid surrounding the spinal cord (called the cerebrospinal fluid or CSF) is withdrawn through a needle and examined in a lab.

Why Is a Spinal Tap Performed?

A spinal tap may be performed to rule out infections, such as meningitis and encephalitis, as the cause of epileptic seizures. 

Besides epilepsy, testing the CSF can help in the diagnosis of disorders of the central nervous system that may involve the brain, spinal cord, or their coverings (the meninges) -- meningitis, multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, or headaches of unknown origin are a few examples. 

The CSF contains glucose (sugar), proteins, and other substances found in the blood. An examination of the fluid will show the number and types of white blood cells, the level of glucose, the types and levels of proteins, and the presence of bacteria, fungi, or abnormal cells.

A spinal tap may also be performed to:

  • Measure the pressure around the brain and spinal cord
  • Relieve pressure in the head
  • Give spinal anesthesia
  • Inject dye for an X-ray diagnostic test
  • Inject medications (such as haclofen)

NOTE: Testing of the CSF may not be necessary if the spinal tap procedure is done to inject a medication.

What to Expect During a Spinal Tap

Preparation for a spinal tap

  • Maintain your regular eating schedule. There are no dietary or fluid restrictions before the test.
  • Ask your doctor for specific guidelines about discontinuing alcohol use, aspirin products, and blood-thinning drugs before the procedure.
  • Tell your doctor if you are allergic to latex or any medications.
  • Please make arrangements for transportation, as you should not drive immediately after the test.

Description of the procedure

You will either lie on your side with your knees drawn as close to your chest as possible and your chin toward your chest or sit with your arms and head resting on a table. After cleaning your back with an antiseptic, sterile cloths (called drapes) will be placed around the area. A local anesthetic (pain-relieving medication) will be injected into the area on your back. You may feel a slight burning sensation. When the area is numb, a hollow needle is inserted in the lower back between two lumbar vertebrae. This sometimes causes pressure. The spinal canal is penetrated and fluid is collected or medication is injected. The spinal cord is not touched by the needle during the test. You may feel some discomfort or have a minor headache. The needle is removed after the medication has been injected or fluid is removed. The area will be covered with a small bandage. A blood sample will be taken from a vein in your arm and tested, along with the spinal fluid, in the lab. If the procedure was done to inject medication, a blood sample may not be taken.

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