Spinal Tap (aka Lumbar Puncture) to Diagnose Headache Disorders

A common headache diagnostic tool, the thought of a lumbar puncture (often called a spinal tap) may terrify you. The length of the needle used is surprising, but the procedure is not that bad. At least, it wasn’t for me and I was needle-shy at the time. Many people have shared similar experiences with me.

Why Lumbar Punctures Are Used
Lumbar punctures are used to check for an underlying condition, like meningitis, hydrocephalus or subarachnoid hemorrhage. They can’t diagnose migraine or tension-type headache, but are used to rule out other possibilities.

What the Procedure is Like
Before the needle is put in, you are given local anesthetic. The anesthetic will sting or burn initially, but you’ll be grateful for it during the next step. After the anesthetic takes effect, the needle to draw the fluid will be inserted. You’ll feel a hard pressure in your back when the needle goes in and might have a few seconds of pain as it goes through the tissue. You may feel pressure while the fluid is being drawn.

The entire procedure takes about 30 minutes, but the part where the needle is in your back only takes a few minutes.

The Dreaded Lumbar Puncture Headache
I’d be lying if I said that spinal headaches following a lumbar puncture are uncommon. However, they are usually gone within 48 hours after the procedure. They are easily treated with pain relievers, lying flat, and drinking a little caffeine and lots of water and are usually gone within 48 hours.

If the headache lasts longer than 48 hours, most doctors will recommend a blood patch. For this, blood is drawn from your arm and then injected in the lumbar region. The blood then forms a clot to seal the puncture hole.

Nearly everyone has relief after a blood patch. Because I’m so special, I became a baseball fan during the three weeks following my lumbar puncture. The odds that you’ll have the same trouble are so low that I’ll spare you the details.

Tips For Your Lumbar Puncture

  • Schedule the procedure for a Friday so you can rest over the weekend.
    If you can send the kids to stay with Grandma and Grandpa, great!
  • If you can stomach it, ask the doctor to explain each step as you go along. Knowing what to expect relieves some of the fear.
  • Have someone drive you to your appointment so you don’t have to drive home. Even if you’re not in pain, you may feel woozy or “off” from nervousness.

Learn More About Lumbar Punctures