Cerebrospinal Fluid Venereal Diseases Research Laboratory Test

Written by Elea Carey | Published on July 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Cerebrospinal Fluid Venereal Diseases Research Laboratory Test

The cerebrospinal fluid venereal diseases research laboratory test is also called CSF-VDRL. The CSF-VDRL test is used to diagnose neurosyphilis, a late-stage form of syphilis that has infected the spinal cord and brain.

Neurosyphilis develops in people who have had syphilis for 10 years or longer. Because syphilis can begin with few symptoms, then become asymptomatic (have no symptoms), it is possible to have the infection for a number of years without knowing it.

This test is conducted by a procedure called lumbar puncture (sometimes known as a spinal tap). This test looks at cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a liquid in your body that forms a barrier around your brain and spinal cord to cushion them.

What Are The Symptoms of Neurosyphilis?

Your doctor has ordered the CSF-VDRL test because he or she is concerned that you may have neurosyphilis. This is a potentially deadly disease. The sooner you get diagnosed and treated, the better your chances of recovery.

Neurosyphilis is difficult to diagnose without the CSF-VDRL test because symptoms could indicate many other conditions, which might mistakenly be diagnosed as behavioral or as signs of aging.

Symptoms of neurosyphilis include:

  • blindness
  • dementia
  • depression
  • difficulties seeing
  • headache
  • incontinence
  • irritability
  • lack of mental clarity
  • numbness in the toes, feet, or legs
  • seizures
  • tremors
  • walking problems, including stumbling and complete inability to walk
  • weakness

How Should I Prepare for the CSF VDRL Test?

Your doctor will need to know if you’re taking any blood-thinning medications or if you have a history of back or spine problems. He or she will also need to know if you have any neurological illnesses or conditions.

As always, give your doctor complete information on what medications you take, including over-the-counter medicines.

If your work is strenuous and involves your back (for example, lifting and moving objects), you may need to arrange to take the day off. You should expect to rest for at least an hour after your test is complete.

What Happens During the CSF-VDRL Test?

The lumbar puncture for your CSF-VDRL test takes place at a hospital or clinic. You will need to change into a hospital gown with the back open so the person conducting the test can easily access your spine.

You will be asked to lie on your side and expose your back or sit up and bend over so your back is exposed. The person conducting the test will clean your back with antiseptic. Next, a local anesthetic will be applied. The anesthetic will reduce or eliminate the pain of the insertion of the needle to draw the CSF from your spine.

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

The person conducting the test will clean and cover the location where the needle was inserted. 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, risks include:

  • bleeding into the spine
  • allergic reaction to anesthetic
  • infection

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 Do the Test Results Mean?

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

A positive result to the CSF-VDRL test means it is very likely you have neurosyphilis. You’ll need to follow your doctor’s orders and begin treatment right away to beat the disease.

A negative result to the CSF VDRL test can mean you do not have neurosyphilis. However, this is not always the case. Even in the instance of a negative CSF-VDRL test result, your doctor might recommend a lengthy course of antibiotics, after which you may have more tests. Remember, neurosyphilis is a potentially deadly disease. Listen carefully to your doctor’s advice.

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