Lumbar puncture to test for childhood cancer

Lumbar puncture to test for childhood cancer

A lumbar puncture is a procedure for taking a sample of fluid from around the spine. It is sometimes called a spinal tap. It is done to find out if there are cancer cells in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

What is it?

A lumbar puncture (LP) is a procedure for taking a sample of fluid from around the spine. It is sometimes called a spinal tap. It is done to find out if there are cancer cells in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

The procedure is usually done by a doctor or nurse in the operating theatre under a general anaesthetic. The child is placed on their side in a curled up position so that a needle can be passed in between two lower vertebrae (bones of the spine) below the spinal cord. The fluid, called CSF (cerebro-spinal fluid) is removed through the needle and sent to the laboratory for testing.

Chemotherapy medicines may be injected into the CSF at the time a child is having their lumbar puncture. This is called intrathecal chemotherapy. You can read more about this at the following fact sheet:

Does it hurt?

Not at the time as your child will be asleep and will not feel anything nor be aware of the procedure. The anaesthetist or another doctor will prescribe medicine for any soreness afterwards.

You may like to read the following information:

What can my child expect after the lumbar puncture?

Sometimes a child will get a headache after a lumbar puncture, but it is not common and the anaesthetist or another doctor will prescribe medicine to relieve it. There is less chance of the headache happening if the child is able to lie down for two hours after the procedure.

Sometimes there can be a small amount of bleeding from the needle site but this is not common. The nurse will change the dressing and show how to press on the area to stop the bleeding.

Sometimes an infection can start at the area of the needle prick. See the section below about removing the dressing to help prevent an infection starting (What will I need to do at home after my child's discharge from hospital?)

Will my child need to stay in hospital overnight?

  • no, unless your child is in hospital for other treatment. After the procedure, your child will have a sleep in bed in the ward or day stay area where they will be monitored by nurses until fully awake
  • your child will stay in the ward or day stay area until they are able to eat and drink and are feeling OK
  • before discharge, the nurse will give you instructions about removing the dressing and preventing soreness

What will I need to do at home after my child's discharge from hospital?

  • remove the dressing which is covering the needle site twenty four hours after the time the lumbar puncture was done. Follow the directions on the instruction sheet given to you by the nurse in the hospital
  • phone the hospital straight away and tell the doctor or nurse if you see any of these in the area of the needle site:
    • redness
    • heat (feels warmer than skin in other parts of the body)
    • fluid oozing out
  • take your child's temperature if you are in any way concerned. If it is 38 degrees celsius or higher, phone the hospital straight away and tell the doctor or nurse
  • keep the instructions for stopping pain given to you by the nurse in the hospital. If your child is sore, follow these instructions

If you have printed and filled out the page of important contacts, you can find the hospital phone number there. If you'd like to fill this out, you can print the following page:

Acknowledgements

All the fact sheets in the Childhood cancer section of this website have been written by health professionals who work in the field of paediatric oncology. They have been reviewed by the members of the National Child Cancer Network (NZ). Medical information is authorised by the National Child Cancer Network Clinical Leader.

This page last reviewed 02 April 2013.
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