What Is a Spinal Tap Test Used For in Brain on Fire?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Brain On Fire" by Susannah Cahalan. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is a spinal tap test? How is it used in Brain on Fire?

A spinal tap test takes fluid from around the brain and spinal cord. It is a diagnostic tool used to help figure out what is and isn’t going on with Susannah Cahalan and her mysterious illness.

Read on to understand the answer to the question “what is a spinal tap test?” and how it helped doctors diagnose Susannah.

What Is a Spinal Tap Test Used For?

As Susannah continues to deteriorate physically, her psychosis seems to recede. She begins to spend most of her time staring off into space. On her fifth day in the hospital, the doctors seize on Susannah’s passivity to give her a spinal tap. But what is a spinal tap test?

In a spinal tap, doctors use a needle to withdraw fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The patient must remain completely still to avoid injury; movement can cause paralysis or death. Susannah’s psychotic states had made the necessary procedure too dangerous to attempt.

Susannah has been in the hospital for nearly a week. Stephen and her family continue their routine of staying in the hospital with her every day, hours on end, feeding her gourmet food, reading aloud to her, or playing cards, though she’s usually too confused to follow the game. Her mother makes sure the best doctors visit regularly. The staff allows Stephen to stay long past visiting hours because his presence calms Susannah and keeps her from escaping.

He plays a country music video for her in the hope that the music will bring her back, but in reality, her short-term memory has been destroyed— each time she watches the video, it’s like she’s seeing it for the first time. 

What is a spinal tap test result used to show? Dr. Siegel informs Susannah’s mom that Susannah’s spinal tap shows an elevated number of white blood cells. This is usually a sign of infection or inflammation and indicates that Susannah’s illness is physiological rather than emotional in nature. The news finally gives Susannah’s mom a clue she can wrap her head around. She spends the rest of the evening Googling medical terms like “meningitis” and “multiple sclerosis.”

Dr. Siegel, the physician on whom Susannah’s mom has pinned her hopes, quits Susannah’s team. Susannah’s mom is devastated. She now believes that Dr. Russo is their only hope—until Russo brings up the name of a Dr. Souhel Najjar, the doctor to call when nothing makes sense. Both Russo and Najjar order a second spinal tap for Susannah.

What Is a Spinal Tap Test Used For in Brain on Fire?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain On Fire" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Brain On Fire summary:

  • How a high-functioning reporter became virtually disabled within a matter of weeks
  • How the author Cahalan recovered through a lengthy process and pieced together what happened to her
  • How Cahalan's sickness reveals the many failures of the US healthcare system

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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