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Role of computed tomography before lumbar puncture: a survey of clinical practice

Abstract

Introduction: It is becoming increasingly common to request computed tomography (CT) to rule out space occupying lesions before lumbar puncture (LP), even in patients with no clinical signs. Imaging trends within a busy district general hospital in Oxfordshire, UK were analysed with results used to clarify when imaging should be considered mandatory.

Method: A retrospective six month sample was obtained comprising all adults considered for LP. Observed frequencies of abnormal examination findings compared with abnormal investigations were used to determine sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive, and negative predictive values to assess the validity of using a normal clinical examination as a basis for excluding CT.

Results: 64 patients were considered for LP. In total, 58 patients underwent LP, with a single patient receiving two. After an abnormal CT scan, six patients did not undergo a planned LP. In all six of these cases subarachnoid haemorrhage was detected, and in all cases this was considered a probable diagnosis. In no case was an LP precluded by an unsuspected space occupying lesion. Neurological examination showed a sensitivity of 0.72 (0.52 to 0.93), specificity 0.78 (0.64 to 0.91), positive predictive value 0.61 (0.41 to 0.83), and negative predictive value 0.85 (0.73 to 0.97).

Discussion: The high sensitivity and negative predictive values support normal neurological examination as an effective predictor of normal CT scan. This permits the recommendation in cases where subarachnoid haemorrhage is not suspected, a CT scan can be avoided provided there are no abnormal findings on physical or fundoscopic examination.

  • CT, computed tomography
  • LP, lumbar puncture
  • PPV, positive predictive value
  • NPV, negative predictive value
  • SAH, subarachnoid haemorrhage
  • computed tomography
  • lumbar puncture
  • meningitis
  • subarachnoid haemorrhage

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