What Is It?
A biopsy is a procedure in which a doctor removes a small amount of tissue for examination in a laboratory. Biopsies help doctors to diagnose many diseases, especially cancer. In some cases, biopsies help to determine the severity or stage of a disease and appropriate treatment. Doctors use different biopsy techniques depending on which tissue or organ needs to be studied.
- Skin biopsy. A sample of skin tissue is removed with a scalpel or other tool.
- Fine-needle aspiration. A very thin needle is inserted into an organ. The needle is attached to a syringe. Often, the procedure is accompanied by ultrasound or computed tomography (CT) scanning to guide the needle to the correct location. The doctor pulls back on the needle's plunger to suck cells from the organ into the empty syringe. The cells are spread on a slide and sent to a laboratory for examination.
- Core needle biopsy. A larger needle with a cutting edge is used to take a full tissue sample, rather than just sucking out cells. A core biopsy provides more information than a fine-needle biopsy.
- Open biopsy. Requires an incision in the skin. Depending on the depth of the body part to be biopsied, the complexity of the procedure varies. For example, a biopsy of an enlarged lymph node in the neck requires only a local anesthetic and often can be done in a doctor's office. An open biopsy of a lung or other organ in the abdomen has to be done in an operating room under general anesthesia.
- Endoscopy. An instrument attached to the end of anendoscope, such as those used in bronchoscopy or colonoscopy, is used to remove a tissue sample.
Biopsies can take as little as a minute for a simple skin biopsy or up to an hour or more for deep biopsies.
What It's Used For
A biopsy is used to remove sample bits of tissue or cells to be examined in a laboratory for signs of cancer or other diseases. The biopsy sample is stained and viewed under the microscope. This examination can tell whether the tissue is normal, not cancerous (benign) or is cancerous (malignant). The examination can identify the type of cancer, and may be used to evaluate the chance that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. For some types of cancer, additional tests can look for genetic changes. This information can be used to make a more precise diagnosis and plan more individualized therapy.
A biopsy also can identify the causes of inflammations and infections.
Because there are several different types of biopsy procedures, your preparation will depend on your specific biopsy. For a skin biopsy, for example, you usually won't need to change what your eat or drink beforehand. However, for an open biopsy that requires general anesthesia, you will need to stop eating and drinking at least several hours before the procedure. If you are scheduled for a colonoscopy and possible colon biopsy, you will be instructed to take laxatives and enemas according to your doctor's directions. You will also have to change your diet.
In general, even for a minor skin biopsy, it's helpful to remind your doctor about any allergies, your history of surgical procedures and the medications you take, especially aspirin and blood-thinning medicines. If there is a possibility that you might be pregnant, tell your doctor before you have a biopsy.
How It's Done
In a skin biopsy, the area to be biopsied is numbed with a local anesthetic and thoroughly cleaned. Then a small piece of tissue is cut away using a sterile scalpel. Finally, the small wound is stitched closed.
In a needle biopsy, the biopsy area is numbed and cleaned, and a sterile hollow needle is inserted through the skin to take the sample.
In an endoscopic biopsy, a small sharp pinching instrument (forceps) at the end of the endoscope is used to snip off and remove a small tissue sample.
In an open biopsy under general anesthesia, a sample of tissue can be cut directly from an organ that has been exposed with a surgical incision.
While some biopsy results are available rather quickly, others may take a few days. Ask your doctor when you should call for your biopsy result.
Most small biopsy procedures are very safe and have only a small risk of bleeding or infection. For larger open biopsies, there are additional risks that accompany general anesthesia and larger surgical procedures.
When To Call a Professional
After any biopsy, call your doctor if you develop a fever or have pain, swelling, redness, pus or bleeding at the biopsy site or at the site of the surgical wound. If you have had an open biopsy, your doctor will tell you what other signs to watch for, depending on your specific type of surgery.
National Library of Medicine (NLM)
8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20894