Spinal Tap and Lumbar Puncture

If your child has — or is suspected to have — a disorder of her central nervous system (also called CNS), it may be challenging to diagnose and treat for a couple of reasons:

  1. The brain and spinal cord are very well-protected — and that means they’re hard for doctors to get to. They’re both surrounded by tissue called meninges, and the brain is encased in the skull, and the spinal cord is encased in the vertebrae (backbone).
  2. They’re very delicate organs, and since they govern your child’s nervous system (which controls her cognition, behavior, mobility, and sensation), invasive procedures come with very serious risks.

For the best results with the least amount of risk, your child’s doctor may use a lumbar puncture (also called a “spinal tap”) to diagnose or treat conditions thought to be associated with her CNS. It’s a quick and fairly painless procedure in which your child’s doctor uses a needle to access her spinal canal and the cerebrospinal fluid that’s found floating in it.

  • A lumbar puncture may be done to help diagnose conditions, effectively deliver medication or measure/relieve pressure within the spinal canal.
  • It’s most often done in a specially-equipped doctor’s office, or in a procedure room.
  • The test isn’t too painful, but may feel uncomfortable and some children have headaches afterwards.
  • It usually takes about a half-hour for the procedure, and children can usually go home a few hours later.
  • Most children have lumbar punctures with local anesthesia, meaning that they’re alert, but the area of the puncture is extremely numb.
  • If your child is having a spinal tap for diagnostic purposes, depending on the tests requested, the results could be available in hours or weeks.

How Boston Children’s Hospital approaches lumbar punctures

The Department of Neurology at Boston Children's is the oldest, largest, and best-known program in pediatric neurology in the world. Our goal is to provide unsurpassed child- and family-centered care.

Our department includes child neurologists with special expertise in such areas as epilepsy, learning disabilities and other developmental disabilities, attention deficit disorders, sleep disorders, neuromuscular disorders, brain tumors, neurogenetic disorders, neonatal neurology, intellectual disability and cerebral palsy, pediatric neuro-immunology and pediatric multiple sclerosis and related disorders, among other neurological disorders in children. You and your child are in good hands here.

When babies develop a fever high enough or abrupt enough to cause a seizure, frightened parents often rush them to the emergency room, where their workup frequently includes a spinal tap to rule out bacterial meningitis. Now, in the largest study to date, researchers at Boston Children's find that this procedure is probably not necessary in well-appearing children who have had a simple febrile seizure.

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Boston Children's Hospital has been ranked #1 in Neurology and Neurosurgery by U.S. News & World Report.

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