Lumbar puncture can be a real pain in the ….. head

Just the other day, I was thinking back to the mid-1980s. That was the time that I underwent a lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, at a leading London hospital. At the time, I had some symptoms linked to an unknown problem with my nervous system. This had led doctors to order the test. 

Of course, lumbar puncture results help neurologists diagnose multiple sclerosis and other issues with the immune or nervous systems. However, those results are not enough to be used in isolation. A full diagnosis of MS also needs an MRI and Evoked Potentials, as well as looking at symptoms and medical history.

lumbar punctureThe lumbar puncture is a procedure where a needle is inserted into the lower spine to withdraw some cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid surrounds your brain and spinal cord. The main job of this fluid is to cushion the brain and spine.

While tests on the fluid are a good indicator, they cannot make a firm determination of MS. In fact, some people who are later given an MS diagnosis have no abnormalities in their lumbar puncture results. Indeed, the USA’s National MS Society says that 5-10% of MS patients show no problems.

Negative lumbar puncture results don’t mean no MS

That’s exactly my experience. The results of my lumbar puncture in the 1980s were negative and led to a nonsense diagnosis. Doctors decided, then, that I leant excessively on my elbows and sat too often with my legs crossed.

Seventeen years later, when I received my diagnosis of MS, the neurologist said he was 99% certain. He explained that he could not be 100% sure without a new lumbar puncture.

No way. I recalled the horrors of my first time. The awful headache pain that lasted three days, three days in which I couldn’t stand or walk. I could only lie down.

lumbar puncture

It’s vital to rest well after your lumbar puncture.

I am assured that not every lumbar puncture ends that way. It seem that some people may have a much easier time, but the risk of pain is still there. So, if you have a lumbar puncture coming up, be sure to listen to your doctors and get plenty of rest afterward.

Some people say that you can return to work if your work is not physically active. I disagree. I did go to my office in the afternoon but was unable to work owing to the terrible pain. The lesson is clear, don’t do what I did. Instead, rest and take a painkiller that includes acetaminophen.

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Affiliate disclaimer: This affiliate disclosure details the affiliate relationships of MS, Health & Disability at with other companies and products. Read more.

* * * * * is the personal website of Ian Franks, a freelance medical writer and editor for various health information sites. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.


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