My testimonial on what it feels like to have a spinal tap or lumbar puncture (LP)
|I was lying in a hospital bed terrified to have a spinal tap because I didn't know what to expect. From what I had heard, they hurt. A lot. But when I asked for more information from my doctors, they just couldn't give it to me straight. In fact, they were more concerned with the fact that the brown sterilization gunk is cold. Imagine that. You're about to have a needle the size of a football stadium shoved into your spine and the doctor is worried that you might get a chill.|
Since doctors seem to have limited vocabulary when they explain procedures to patients, I’m going to explain what a spinal tap feels like. My description of a spinal tap may be different than what other people have experienced, but at least it’s honest. If you or someone you know is about to have a lumbar puncture, I hope my play-by-play experience with a spinal tap will help you know what to expect.
After what felt like hours of waiting, the neurologist positioned me in the proper position. I curled into the fetal position with my knees somewhere up in my chest and my face buried between my breasts. Then she told me to arch my back like a cat. Basically, I had to lie like a sideways cat in heat.
The preparation wasn't bad at all. That soap really was cold, but again, cold was the least of my worries. The doctor wiped down my lower back with a brownish-orangish soap and then covered me in sterile pads to try and prevent infection. My grandfather once got a very unexpected case of meningitis from a spinal injection, so I was happy for the cleanliness.
Once my back was fully prepared, my doctor poked my spine and hips until she could find the perfect spot. She drew a smiley face or something to that effect on the spot she wanted to inject (or stab, as the case really was). X marks the spot, right?
Then the doctor told me I might feel a pinch and a bit of pain with the local anesthetic. UNDERSTATEMENT. Any time a needle goes into your spine, you will feel more than a pinch. You may feel like someone stabbed you. You may feel like you were impaled. You may even feel like your spine is going to come through your eye socket. But a pinch? Not likely.
After the initial 'pinch,' the doctor waited about four seconds before she picked up the needle that looked like a nuclear warhead. Warning me to stay very steady, she plunged the needle deep into my spine in a way that made me want to laugh at the pain I thought I felt from the first needle.
That's when I heard the ever comforting words, "Oh dear." From years of arthritis, my synovium was too thick for any fluid to escape. Even though the needle was firmly planted in my spine, the doctor was going to have to remove it and start all over again.
This time I didn't get another Novocain shot. In fact, I didn't get another Novocain shot for any of the nine spinal tap attempts that followed. A band of tiny ninjas were attacking my back with broadswords and still the fluid wouldn't budge.
Feeling awful about what she was putting me through, the doctor asked me to switch positions on her tenth try. As it turned out, the tenth time was a charm. I hunched forward with my legs spread open and my torso touching the hospital bed. The needle burrowed into my spine, and at long last, I could feel the slow draining of my spinal fluid as it entered the syringe.
The fluid was clear, which is apparently the way it's supposed to look, so my spinal tap (or spinal taps if you want to be technical) was considered a success. Once I got over the ten days of excruciating migraines from my brain not being sufficiently covered by spinal fluid, I considered it to be a success, too.
It may sound like having a spinal tap is awful. And it is. My case of going through ten stabbings (11 if you count the Novocain) was unusual, so that was only my problem. In a typical case, a spinal tap is going to hurt, but it will be over quickly. And when you get to see that syringe filled with liquid, all the pain will be worth it. Whether the spinal fluid is clear or not, you will know what is wrong with you. After all, they don't just puncture people's spines for no good reason, so if there might be a problem, it's always best to have a solid answer through a spinal tap, no matter how much it hurts.