Also Known As
Spinal fluid analysis
Formal Name
Cerebrospinal fluid analysis
This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on
22 May 2018.
At a Glance
Why Get Tested?

To diagnose a disease or condition affecting the central nervous system (CNS) such as bleeding within the brain or skull, cancer, autoimmune disorder or infection

When To Get Tested?

When your doctor suspects that your symptoms are due to a condition or disease involving your central nervous system

Sample Required?

A sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is collected by a doctor from the lower back using a procedure called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap

Test Preparation Needed?

The patient should empty their bladder and bowels prior to the sample collection. It will be necessary to lie still in a curled-up foetal position during the test and to lie quietly for a time period after the collection.

On average it takes 7 working days for the blood test results to come back from the hospital, depending on the exact tests requested. Some specialist test results may take longer, if samples have to be sent to a reference (specialist) laboratory. The X-ray & scan results may take longer. If you are registered to use the online services of your local practice, you will be able to access your results online.

If the doctor wants to see you about the result(s), you will be offered an appointment. If you are concerned about your test results, you will need to arrange an appointment with your doctor so that all relevant information including age, ethnicity, health history, signs and symptoms, laboratory and other procedures (radiology, endoscopy, etc.), can be considered.

Lab Tests Online-UK is an educational website designed to provide patients and carers with information on laboratory tests used in medical care. We are not a laboratory and are unable to comment on an individual's health and treatment.

Reference ranges are dependent on many factors, including patient age, gender, sample population, and test method, and numeric test results can have different meanings in different laboratories.

For these reasons, you will not find reference ranges for the majority of tests described on this web site. The lab report containing your test results should include the relevant reference range for your test(s). Please consult your doctor or the laboratory that performed the test(s) to obtain the reference range if you do not have the lab report.

For more information on reference ranges, please read Reference Ranges and What They Mean.

What is being tested?

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a clear watery liquid filtrate that is formed by the choroid plexus, special tissue that has many blood vessels and lines the small spaces or chambers (ventricles) in the brain. CSF flows around the brain and spinal cord, surrounding and protecting them. CSF is continually produced, circulated, and then absorbed into the blood system. About 500 mL is produced each day. This rate of production means that all of the CSF is replaced every few hours.

A protective blood-brain barrier separates the brain from circulating blood and regulates the distribution of substances between the blood and the CSF. The barrier helps keep large molecules, toxins, and most blood cells away from the brain. Any condition that disrupts this protective barrier may result in a change in the normal level or type of constituents of CSF. Because CSF surrounds the brain and spinal cord, testing a sample of CSF can be very valuable in diagnosing a variety of diseases affecting the central nervous system (CNS). Although a sample of CSF may be more difficult to obtain than, for example, urine or blood, the results may reveal more directly the cause of brain-related symptoms.

For example, infections and inflammation in the meninges (called meningitis) or the brain (called encephalitis) can disrupt the blood-brain barrier and allow white and red blood cells and increased amounts of protein into the CSF. Meningitis and encephalitis can also lead to the production of antibodies. Immune diseases that affect the CNS, such as Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and multiple sclerosis can also produce antibodies that can be found in the CSF. Cancers such as leukaemia can lead to an increase in CSF white blood cells (WBCs), and cancerous tumours can result in the presence of abnormal cells. These changes from normal CSF constituents make the examination of cerebrospinal fluid valuable as a diagnostic tool.

CSF analysis usually involves an initial basic set of tests performed when CSF analysis is requested:

  • CSF colour, clarity and pressure during collection
  • CSF protein
  • CSF glucose
  • CSF cell count
  • CSF differential
  • If infection is suspected, CSF gram stain and culture

A wide variety of other tests may be requested as follow-up depending on the results of the first set of tests. The specific tests that are requested may also depend on the signs and symptoms of the patient and the disease the doctor suspects is the cause. Each of these tests can be grouped according to the type of examination that is performed:

  • Physical characteristics —includes measurement of the pressure during sample collection and the appearance of the CSF.
  • Chemical tests —this group refers to those tests that detect or measure the chemical substances found in spinal fluid. CSF is basically an ultafiltrate of the blood (all of the large molecules such as proteins are left in the blood and do not normally pass across into the CSF), so it can also be affected by what is going on in the blood. Normally, certain constituents of CSF such as protein and glucose are a percentage of blood levels, so CSF levels are often evaluated in relation to blood levels.
  • Microscopic examination (Cell count and differential) any cells that may be present are counted and identified by cell type under a microscope.
  • Infectious disease tests —numerous tests can be performed to detect and identify microorganisms if an infection is suspected.

For detailed explanations of various type of examinations, please see Details on CSF Tests below.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is collected by a doctor from the lower back using a procedure called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap. Often, three or more separate tubes of CSF are collected, and multiple tests may be run on the different samples.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

The patient should empty their bladder and bowels prior to the sample collection. It will be necessary to lie still in a curled-up foetal position during the test and to lie quietly for a time period after the collection.

Accordion Title
Common Questions
  • How is it used?

    Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis may be used to help diagnose a wide variety of diseases and conditions affecting the central nervous system (CNS). They may be divided into four main categories:  

  • When is it requested?

    CSF analysis may be requested when a doctor suspects that a patient has a condition or disease involving their CNS. A patient’s medical history may prompt the request for CSF analysis. It may be requested when a patient has suffered trauma to the brain or spinal cord, has been diagnosed with cancer that may have spread (metastatic) or has signs or symptoms suggestive of a condition involving their CNS. 

    The signs and symptoms of CNS conditions can vary widely and many overlap with a variety of diseases and disorders. They may have sudden onset, suggesting an acute condition such as CNS bleeding or infection or may be slow to develop, indicating a chronic disease such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.

    Depending on a patient’s history, doctors may request CSF analysis when some combination of the following signs and symptoms appear:

    • changes in mental status and consciousness
    • confusion, hallucinations or seizures
    • muscle weakness or lethargy, fatigue
    • nausea (feeling sick)
    • flu-like symptoms that intensify over a few hours to a few days
    • fever or rash
    • sudden, severe or persistent headache or a stiff neck
    • sensitivity to light
    • numbness or tremor
    • dizziness
    • difficulties with speech
    • difficulty walking, lack of coordination
    • mood swings, depression
    • infants may be irritable, cry when they are held, have body stiffness, refuse food, and have bulging fontanels (the soft spots on the top of the head)
  • What does the test result mean?

    CSF usually contains a small amount of protein and glucose and may have a few white blood cells (WBCs).  

    Any condition that disrupts the normal pressure or flow of CSF or the protective ability of the blood/brain barrier can result in abnormal results of CSF testing. For detailed explanations of what various test results may mean, see the sections below on:

    • CSF physical characteristics
    • CSF chemical tests
    • CSF microscopic examination
    • CSF infectious disease tests
  • Is there anything else I should know?

    Multiple tubes of CSF are often collected during a lumbar puncture to ensure the quality of samples for testing.

    Meningitis due to infective causes is a medical emergency. Your doctor must rapidly distinguish between this and other causes. Because prompt treatment is crucial, your doctor may start you on a broad-spectrum antibiotic before the diagnosis has been definitely determined. 

    To help diagnose your illness your doctor may want to know what recent illnesses and vaccinations you may have had, what symptoms you are experiencing, whether you have been in contact with any ill people, and what places you have recently travelled to.

     

  • What is a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) and how is it performed?

    The lumbar puncture is a special, but relatively routine, procedure. It is usually performed while you are lying on your side in a curled up foetal position, but may sometimes be performed in a sitting position. It is crucial that you remain still during the procedure. Once you are in the correct position, your back is cleaned with an antiseptic and a local anaesthetic is injected under the skin. When the area has become numb, a special needle is inserted through the skin, between two vertebrae, and into your spinal canal. It is gently advanced until it enters the subarachnoid space (located between the arachnoid and pia mater layers of the meninges) and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) begins to flow. You may be asked to straighten out your legs at this point and relax your muscles. It is important not to move unless you are instructed to do so. An "opening" or initial pressure reading of the CSF is obtained. The doctor then collects a small amount of CSF in multiple sterile vials. A "closing" pressure is obtained, the needle is withdrawn, and a sterile dressing and pressure are applied to the puncture site. You will then be asked to lie quietly in a flat position, without lifting your head, for one or more hours to avoid a potential post-test spinal headache.

    The lumbar puncture procedure usually takes less than half an hour. For most patients it is a moderately uncomfortable to somewhat painful procedure. The most common sensation is a feeling of pressure when the needle is introduced. Let your doctor know if you experience a headache or any abnormal sensations, such as pain, numbness, or tingling in your legs, or pain at the puncture site.

    The lumbar puncture is performed low in the back, well below the end of the spinal cord – usually between lumbar (L) vertebrae L4 and L5. There are spinal nerves in the location sampled, but they have room to move away from the needle. There is the potential for the needle to contact a small vein on the way in. This can cause a “traumatic tap,” which just means that a small amount of blood may leak into one or more of the samples collected. While this is not ideal, it is not uncommon. The evaluation of your results will take this into account.

    Blood from the lumbar puncture may contaminate the first portion of CSF sample that is collected. However, there are usually three or more separate tubes used to collect CSF samples during one spinal tap procedure. The last tube that is collected during a lumbar puncture is least likely to have blood cells present due to the procedure and is usually the sample used to test for the presence of blood in the CSF. Likewise, the last sample collected is used for infectious disease testing since it will not be contaminated with microorganisms from inserting the needle through the skin.

  • Are there other reasons to do a lumbar puncture?

    Yes. Sometimes it will be performed to introduce anaesthetics or drugs into the CSF. Repeated punctures are sometimes used to decrease CSF pressure.

  • Why do I need a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) - why can't my blood or urine be tested?

    Spinal fluid, obtained during a spinal tap, is often the best sample to use for conditions affecting your central nervous system because your CSF surrounds your brain and spinal cord. Changes in the elements of your CSF due to CNS diseases or other serious conditions are often first and most easily detected in a sample of your spinal fluid. Tests on blood and urine may be used in conjunction with CSF analysis to evaluate your condition

  • What other tests may be done in addition to CSF analysis?

    Other laboratory testing that may be requested along with or following CSF testing includes:

Accordion Title
Details on CSF Tests
  • Physical characteristics

    The appearance of the sample of CSF is usually compared to a sample of water.  

    • Pressure of the CSF can be measured when opening (starting) and closing (finishing) the collection.
      • Increased CSF pressure may be seen with a variety of conditions that increase pressure within the brain or skull and/or that obstruct the flow of CSF, such as tumours, infection, abnormal accumulation of CSF within the brain (hydrocephalus), or bleeding.
      • Decreased pressure may be due to dehydration, shock, or leakage of CSF through an opening (another LP site or sinus fracture).
    • Colour of the fluid — normal is clear and colourless. Changes in the colour of the CSF are not diagnostic but may point to additional substances in the fluid. Yellow, orange, or pink CSF is said to be xanthochromic. It may indicate the breakdown of blood cells due to bleeding into the CSF or the presence of bilirubin. Green CSF may also sometimes be seen with bilirubin or infection.
    • Turbidity — Cloudy or turbid CSF may indicate the presence of white or red blood cells, microorganisms, or an increase in protein levels.
    • Viscosity — Normal CSF will have the same consistency as water. CSF that is “thicker” may be seen in patients with certain types of cancers or meningitis.
  • Chemical Tests

    A few routine tests are usually performed on CSF samples.

    • CSF glucose – normal is about 2/3 the concentration of blood glucose. Glucose levels may decrease when cells that are not normally present use up (metabolise) the glucose. These may include bacteria or cells present due to inflammation (WBCs) or shed by tumours.
    • CSF protein – only a small amount is normally present in CSF because proteins are large molecules and do not cross the blood/brain barrier easily. Decreases in CSF protein are not generally considered significant. Increases in protein are most commonly seen with:

    If any of the initial tests are abnormal or if the doctor has reason to suspect a specific condition, then additional testing may be requested. This may include one or more of the following:

    • CSF protein electrophoresis — separates different types of protein. Oligoclonal bands may be seen with multiple sclerosis and Lyme disease.
    • CSF IgG (Immunoglobulin G) — increased in some conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, herpes encephalitis, connective tissue diseases.
    • CSF lactic acid — often used to distinguish between viral and bacterial meningitis. The level will usually be increased with bacterial and fungal meningitis while it will remain normal or only slightly elevated with viral meningitis.
    • CSF lactate dehydrogenase (LD) — used to differentiate between bacterial and viral meningitis; may also be elevated with leukaemia or stroke.
    • CSF amino acid analysis – may be requested in the investigation of several inherited metabolic diseases, particularly those presenting with unexplained seizures
    • CSF bilirubin – seen following subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH). Requested when SAH is suspected but evidence of a bleed has not been demonstrated by a computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Microscopic examination

    Normal CSF has no or very few cells present and appears clear. If the CSF sample appears clear, a small drop of undiluted CSF is examined under a microscope, and cells are counted manually. However, if the CSF is very cloudy or bloody, which can indicate the presence of many cells, the specimen may be run on an automated cell counter.

    If the number of cells present is increased (for example, more than 5/mm3 ), the laboratory will most likely perform a cell differential . This may not be done if there are fewer than 5/mm3 cells present. To perform a differential, labs will often use a special centrifuge (cytocentrifuge) to concentrate the cells at the bottom of a test tube. A sample of the concentrated cells is placed on a slide, treated with special stain, and an evaluation of the different kinds of WBCs present is performed. Sometimes if there are too many cells present in the centrifuged sample, an accurate differential may be difficult to perform. In those cases, the specimen may be diluted, cytocentrifuged, and then stained.

    If cancer is suspected or has been previously diagnosed, the sample is usually cytocentrifuged regardless of the number of cells counted, and a differential is performed.

    • CSF total cell counts
      • Red blood cell (RBC) count. Normally no red blood cells are present in the CSF. The presence of red blood cells may indicate bleeding into the CSF or may indicate a “traumatic tap” - blood that leaked into the CSF sample during collection.
      • White blood cell (WBC) count. Normally less than 5 cells are present per cubic mm of adult CSF. A significant increase in white blood cells in the CSF is seen with infection or inflammation of the CNS.
    • CSF WBC differential
      • an increase in neutrophils with a bacterial infection
      • an increase in lymphocytes with a viral or Mycobacterial (TB) infection
      • sometimes an increase in eosinophils with a parasitic infection
      • abnormal and increased numbers of WBCs may be seen with leukaemia that is present in the CNS
      • abnormal cells may be present with cancerous tumours
      • immune disorders of the CSF, such as multiple sclerosis, may also cause a slight increase in lymphocytes.
      • an increase in the different types of WBCs with a variety of other conditions, including brain abscess, following seizures or bleeding within the brain or skull, metastatic tumour, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and inflammatory disorders such as sarcoidosis.
    • CSF cytology – a cytocentrifuged sample is treated with a special stain and examined under a microscope for abnormal cells. This is often done when a CNS tumour or metastatic cancer is suspected. The presence of certain abnormal cells, such as tumour cells or immature blood cells, can indicate what type of cancer is involved.
  • Tests for Infections

    in addition to chemistry tests, such as protein and glucose, other routine tests may be performed to look for microorganisms if meningitis or encephalitis is suspected.

    • CSF gram stain for direct observation of microorganisms under a microscope. There should be no microorganisms in CSF fluid. If bacteria or fungi are present on a CSF gram stain, then the patient has bacterial or fungal meningitis or encephalitis.
    • CSF culture and sensitivity is used to detect any microorganisms, which will grow in the culture. If bacteria are present, they can be tested in the laboratory to predict the best choices for antimicrobial therapy for the patient and prophylaxis of close contacts, if needed. If there are no microorganisms present, it does not rule out an infection; they may be present in small numbers or unable to grow in culture due to prior antibiotic therapy.

    If any of the initial tests are abnormal or if the doctor strongly suspects a CNS infection, then additional testing may be ordered. This may include one or more of the following:

    • Detection of viruses – detection of viral genetic material (DNA, RNA) by PCR testing; for example, herpes virus and enteroviruses. Positive PCR tests for viral DNA or RNA, antigen tests, and growth on viral cultures indicate that the patient has a viral infection and may have viral encephalitis or meningitis. The presence of viral antibodies and their increase over time indicates a recent infection by that virus.
    • CSF Cryptococcal antigen – to detect a specific fungal infection
    • Other CSF antigen tests – depending on which organism(s) are suspected
    • Specific CSF antibody tests – depending on which organism(s) are suspected

    Other CSF tests for infectious diseases that are less commonly requested include:

    • CSF molecular tests for Mycobacteria tuberculosis when tuberculosis is suspected
    • CSF syphilis testing (VDRL) may be positive with neurosyphilis (involvement of the brain by syphilis); a negative does not rule out brain involvement