Lumbar punctures, spinal taps, and medical malpractice

A lumbar puncture or spinal tap is a procedure where a doctor inserts a needle into the lower back between two lumbar vertebrae to get a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

CSF is the clear, colorless liquid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain. Adults have about two-thirds of a cup of cerebrospinal fluid, which plays several important roles. CSF is a shock absorber that protects the brain and spinal cord, transports nutrients and oxygen from the blood to the brain and spinal cord, and removes waste from brain cells.

Neurologists and other doctors order spinal taps when they need help in diagnosing some serious infections or neurological disorders. CSF samples are examined microscopically and can provide a definitive diagnosis for conditions including meningitis, encephalitis, brain or spinal cord cancer, brain hemorrhaging, multiple sclerosis and Guillain-Barre syndrome. Depending on the diagnosis, the patient may need immediate life-saving treatment.

A typical lumbar puncture takes less than an hour. It’s a pretty common procedure in the United States, with over 400,000 done each year.

The procedure starts with the doctor and nurse correctly positioning the patient to make the lumbar spine easily accessible. Positioning is usually either with the patient’s knees pulled close to the chest and the chin toward the chest, or sitting with arms and head resting on a table.

Next, the doctor or nurse applies local anesthesia to numb the area where the needle will be inserted.

After numbing has occurred, the doctor inserts a long, thin, hollow needle between two lumbar vertebrae to obtain the CSF sample. Most people experience a feeling of pressure and perhaps a small burning sensation. After the cerebrospinal fluid sample is secured, the physician removes the needle and sends the fluid to the laboratory for analysis.

After a successful spinal tap, some people experience mild discomfort or a headache. If the headache is persistent, the neurologist or doctor may recommend a blood patch, which involves injecting a small amount of the patient’s blood into the epidural space near the site of the puncture. When the blood clots, it patches the small leak in the protective dura mater that was created when the needle was inserted to obtain the CSF sample.

It’s important for doctors performing lumbar punctures to be well trained and not in a hurry when carrying out this sensitive procedure. Several years ago, in Illinois, a medical malpractice plaintiff filed a claim based on a doctor puncturing her skin over 20 times for a spinal tap. Other common types of medical malpractice involving lumbar punctures include:

• Brain herniation (uncal or tonsillar), which is life-threatening and often also leads to devastating impairments

• Causing a spinal infection by a contaminated or unsterilized needle

• Complex regional pain syndrome or lower pain

• Nerve root damage, irritation, herniation, or transaction from poor technique or repeated insertion of the needle

• Spinal cord damage by inserting the needle at the wrong lumbar level directly into the spinal cord.

• Spinal hematomas that can cause serious injury by the compressing spinal cord

If you’ve been seriously injured because of care involving a lumbar puncture, then contact a top-rated experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for help in evaluating your potential case.

Robert Painter
Article by

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.