Case Study: This is Spinal Tap and Five Reasons Why This Works

Lumbar puncture art by LeQ Medical

This project came to us from another agency who was putting together a very large, very comprehensive website. One of the services to be described on the website involved lumbar puncture or a “spinal tap” procedure. We wrote the text, which is what the client ordered, but we also provided this illustration. The key thing to understand with lumbar puncture is that it is a procedure aimed at drawing out cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which the body protects heavily by storing it within the spinal cord itself. This drawing demonstrates how a needle (puncture) can navigate its way between the bony protrusions of the vertebral column and puncture the spinal cord to get the CSF.

This art work is relatively simple to understand, particularly if you read the descriptive text. But we have some secrets, so let’s pull back the curtain to show you why this works as well as it does. After all, there are lots of ways to illustrate a spinal tap. Why did we do it this way and not some other way?

1. This drawing is not what the patient will see or experience during the procedure–it might be tempting to show the patient just the needle or explain that he or she will be asked to curl up on a table to expose the spine. It might be tempting to explain that patients are given a local anesthetic first. But we focused on the actual nuts and bolts of a spinal tap. This is a needle that finds its way inside your spinal cord. It works because we picked the right thing to illustrate. When explaining medical concepts to patients, it is important to give them the big picture first (“this is what we’re doing”) rather than emphasizing the details. Our article did explain all the other parts about a spinal tap, but the art work emphasized the main concept. Takeaway: picture the big concept first.

2. One important aspect to a spinal tap is that a patient gets a shot into his backbone. That’s why we did the person with the vertebral column to the left and it’s why we used the big red box to highlight the area that the doctor would target. This helps orient the patient and physician. There is nothing really in this image that is important so much as we are identifying the approximate region where the lumbar puncture occurs. Takeaway: give your viewer a reference point.

3. The needle is stylized, that is, we do not show the big massive thing that they jab into your spine during a lumbar puncture. The purpose of this picture is not to terrify the patient but to show that a needle will be inserted into the spine. We chose to emphasize the important aspect of the needle (the needle part) and avoid going into the details about the puncture part. Takeaway: Know what details to omit.

4. The spinal column is perhaps the most vulnerable area of the human body, so rather than draw it as a complex structure or try to indicate how the vertebrae stack themselves up around it like a fortress, we made it a simple yellow column. This is stylization at its best. By focusing on what is important and limiting medical detail, the art gives a clearer picture. Takeaway: It’s better to be clear than to be thorough.

5. You might think it unnecessary in such an abbreviated drawing to include a drop of CSF going into a vial, but this is the point of the procedure. We wanted to remind the patient that the goal is to get some drops of fluid stored in the body within the spine into a test vial for examination. Takeaway: Never lose sight of the point you’re trying to make.

This drawing was done for a hospital website.