The Risks and Benefits of Lumbar Punctures and Spinal Taps

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The Risks and Benefits of Lumbar Punctures and Spinal TapsDoctors rely on a wide variety of test results in order to make a correct diagnosis. One of these tests, known as a lumbar puncture (LP), allows doctors to analyze the contents of a person’s cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid can help physicians diagnose and treat multiple different illnesses, depending on the results of the test.

While an LP is a relatively common procedure, it is not without its risk. Serious injury can occur if the procedure is performed incorrectly or if complications are not caught in time.

What is a Lumbar Puncture?

During a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap, a needle is inserted between the patient’s vertebrae in the lower back. Usually, the patient will be lying on his or her side, and the area will be numbed before the procedure.

The needle will withdraw some of the fluid which lubricates the spinal cord and the brain, known as the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Usually, the CSF contains only some proteins and glucose molecules, with only a few cells. When the contents of the CSF are abnormal, this can indicate four main types of conditions or diseases, including:

  • Infectious diseases like meningitis or encephalitis,
  • Bleeding around brain,
  • Autoimmune conditions like Guillain-Barré syndrome, multiple sclerosis or sarcoidosis,
  • Tumors within the central nervous system.

Many of these conditions are extraordinarily serious and can be fatal if left untreated. Performing an LP allows doctors to quickly diagnose and treat the issue, making the procedure an important medical tool.

What are the Risks?

With any medical procedure, there is the possibility of complications or side effects. Most commonly, people who undergo a lumbar puncture will have headaches caused by a small amount of CSF leaking from the needle insertion site. Usually, these headaches will resolve on their own after a day or two; those that do not may signal a more serious problem which should be treated by a doctor.

In addition to headaches, an LP may allow bacteria from the skin to be introduced into the CSF. This type of complication can almost always be avoided with proper cleaning and disinfection of the needle insertion site.

Finally, if an LP is performed when a patient already has increased CSF pressure or swelling in the brain, the spinal tap can result in a brain herniation. This occurs when the CSF pressure compresses the brain stem or the top of the spinal column, which can cause serious injury or death.

When Is It Malpractice?

Medical professionals in California have a responsibility to treat patients with the same degree of knowledge, skill, and care that another doctor would use under the same circumstances. This means that even if a procedure has an unexpected result or complication, the doctor will not have committed malpractice if he or she took the same actions that most other doctors would have in the same situation.

If a doctor’s actions (or lack of actions) are below of this standard of care, then the doctor may have committed malpractice if those actions caused injury to the patient. The patient must be able to show that the doctor’s mistake not only constituted negligence, but was the direct cause of the injury.

Medical malpractice cases are usually brought in one of three situations: failure to diagnose a condition, failure to properly treat a condition, or failure to warn the patient of the risks of a procedure. This could mean that a doctor failed to order a spinal tap quickly enough to diagnose a condition like meningitis, failed to properly clean the needle insertion site, or failed to warn the patient about the risks of a condition like brain herniation before the procedure.

Proving that a doctor’s actions were below the standard of care can be difficult without extensive medical and legal training. At the Trial Law Offices of Bradley I. Kramer, M.D., Esq., we work to help victims of medical malpractice, and will thoroughly investigate your case. Our experienced staff of legal and medical professionals help you recover your losses, including medical expenses, lost earning capacity, pain and suffering, and more.

For a free consultation with a Los Angeles medical malpractice lawyer, call (310) 289-2600 or use our online contact form to have your case reviewed today.

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