A headache, fever and sore neck -- is it just the flu? Or could it be Neisseria Meningitis?
The question can be answered after a simple procedure. However, meningitis often puts you in exactly the wrong mood to sit still while some ham-fisted doctor pushes a long needle between the bones of your back.
Unpleasant as it is, the lumbar puncture may be necessary. Without treatment, bacterial meningitis can kill you within 24 hours the first symptoms. That's right -- go to bed with a headache and your spouse finds you as dead as a mackerel in the morning.
Germs like Neisseria meningitidis sneak through your nasal passages and reach the crystal clear spinal fluid that normally bathes your brain -- converting it into pus. A headache turns into confusion, delirium and stupor. You develop a freckle-like hemorrhagic rash and -- the most important symptom -- a stiff neck. Before you grab your coat and rush to the emergency room, let me inform you that this is not the normal muscle ache or sore throat that typically accompanies fever. This is the involuntary spasm that occurs in a relaxed patient when the neck is gently flexed -- a maneuver that is easy for the trained professional, but which no person can perform on themselves.
An infected sample of spinal fluid is the only sure way of making the diagnosis, and the only way to get that fluid is to endure a lumbar puncture or "Spinal Tap" -- a term that is seldom used today since patients generally faint from apprehension when the they hear the phrase. Although most people are more scared of the test than they are of dying of meningitis, the LP is not dangerous. It can be painful and leave a lingering headache, but it might also prompt doctors to administer life-saving antibiotics or reveal the cause to be a harmless virus. Even if the tap is negative, you will still get some pain pills and the relief of knowing your family members won't spend tomorrow afternoon digging up your life insurance policy.