Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) Protein Test

Written by Elea Carey | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Cerebrospinal Fluid Protein Test?

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the liquid that cushions and protects your brain and spinal cord.

The CSF protein test is used to determine if there is too much protein in your CSF. It can also be used to detect protein levels that are too low.

Why Has My Doctor Ordered This Test?

A CSF protein test is ordered when your doctor suspects you have a central nervous system or inflammatory condition. High levels of protein in your CSF can indicate:

  • aseptic meningitis
  • bacterial meningitis
  • brain abscess
  • brain tumor
  • cerebral hemorrhage
  • epilepsy
  • multiple sclerosis
  • neurosyphilis

This test will also show high levels of protein if you have acute alcoholism.

Low levels of protein in your CSF could mean your body is leaking CSF. It could also mean that your body is retaining too much water. This rare condition is called acute water intoxication.

What Is the Procedure for the CSF Protein Test?

This test is conducted with a lumbar puncture. This procedure is also known as a spinal tap.

How Should I Prepare for The CSF Protein Test?

Your doctor will need to know if you’re taking any blood-thinning medications. You should also share any history of back or spine problems. It is important to tell your doctor about any neurological illnesses or conditions as well.

As always, give your doctor complete information on what medications you take. Make certain to include both prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

If your work is strenuous and might involve your back, tell your doctor. You may need to take the day of your test off. You should expect to rest for at least an hour after your test is complete.

What Happens During the CSF Protein Test?

The lumbar puncture for your CSF protein test takes place at a hospital or clinic. You will need to change into a hospital gown with the back open. This gives the doctor easy access to your spine.

You will be asked to turn on your side and expose your back. You might also sit up and bend over.

The person conducting the test will clean your back with antiseptic. A local anesthetic will be applied. It may take a few moments to start working. The anesthetic will reduce or eliminate the pain of the needle.

A hollow needle will be inserted into your lower spine. A small amount of CSF will be withdrawn. You must hold very still.

The needle will be withdrawn. The insertion site will be cleaned and covered. The CSF will be sent to a laboratory for diagnosis.

You can expect to rest for an hour or two after your test. Your doctor may suggest you take a mild pain reliever.

Does This Test Have Any Risks?

Lumbar puncture is widely used and considered safe. However, there are some medical risks, including:

  • bleeding into the spine
  • allergic reaction to anesthetic
  • infection
  • damage to the spinal cord (if you move)
  • brain herniation (if a brain mass is present)

There is usually some discomfort during, and for a little while after, the test.

Many people have a headache after a lumbar puncture. This should go away within 24 hours. Let your doctor know if it doesn’t.

What Are the Next Steps?

Your test results should be ready in a couple of days. Your doctor will read them and discuss likely next steps.

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