A biopsy is a procedure to remove tissue, fluid, or a growth from your body. This tissue, fluid, or growth is sent to a lab for testing. A biopsy offers a closer look at these items to see if they are normal or if they indicate a disease or condition. Sometimes, a biopsy is used to find a treatment for your disease or see if you are a match for an organ transplant.
Biopsies are performed in a hospital or a doctor’s office. Your doctor will tell you how to prepare for a biopsy.
Types of biopsies
There are two common types of biopsy: needle and skin. Your biopsy type will depend on why you are having it done. Your doctor will call you with the lab results.
A needle biopsy involves inserting a needle through your skin and into the area your doctor is examining. There are several types of needle biopsies:
- A fine-needle aspiration is a thin needle attached to a syringe. It is a simple way to remove a small sample of fluid or tissue.
- A core needle (a larger, hollow needle) is used to remove a larger sample. This method is commonly used in breast biopsies to check for breast cancer.
- Image-guided biopsies are performed with the help of an X-ray, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), a CT scan (CAT scan), ultrasound machine, or mammogram technology. These technologies help guide the needle to the tissue or growth.
- An open biopsy is a surgical procedure and requires local or general anesthesia. Local anesthesia relaxes or sedates you. General anesthesia is given to you through an IV (intravenous) injection in a vein in your arm. It prevents pain during the biopsy and puts you into a deep sleep. This is always done in a hospital or surgical center.
- Laparoscopic biopsies rely on a small surgical incision to insert a flexible tube attached to a camera and needle or thin wire. This helps direct the doctor to the right spot for the biopsy. Sometimes, a thin wire is used to remove the tissue the doctor needs to test.
A skin biopsy is generally performed on the surface of your skin. There are four types of skin biopsies: shave (or scrape), punch, excisional, and incisional. A skin biopsy is often used to examine an abnormal looking skin growth or lesion (sore). Your doctor will likely numb the area around the biopsy site by injecting a local anesthesia just under your skin. Your doctor may also choose to freeze the surface with a topical numbing medicine.
- A shave biopsy uses a razor or small blade to scrape away a part of a skin growth or sore. It’s a method that is commonly used on moles if your doctor is testing for skin cancer. You will not need anesthesia or stitches.
- A punch biopsy uses a special device to remove all or nearly all of a suspicious skin lesion. The procedure cuts deeper into the skin. You may have to have stitches. It’s a method generally used to examine a rash.
- Excisional biopsy involves using a small scalpel (surgical knife). It’s a method typically used to remove the entire lesion. It will require stitches and local anesthesia for pain.
- Incisional biopsy is generally used on very large lesions. Your doctor will remove just a part of the lesion to test or treat it. You will need stitches and a local anesthesia for pain.
If you have a skin cancer on your eyelids, nose, ears, lips or hands, your doctor may do a Mohs biopsy. Mohs protects the healthy skin around the cancer. Your doctor will cut a little of the cancer at a time. He or she will examine it under a microscope while you wait on the procedure table. Your doctor will cut more of the growth until he or she no longer sees cancer in the outer borders.
You may experience brief pain for all biopsies (because of the procedure or the anesthesia injection). Your recovery time from the procedure is based on the type of biopsy you had. Also, it depends on whether or not you needed local or general anesthesia during the procedure, how large the area being biopsied was, and where the biopsy was taken from. Recovery also will depend on whether or not you needed stitches.
Things to consider
Before your biopsy, tell your doctor if you are pregnant, are allergic to latex (rubber gloves), and about any medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you are taking. Certain medicines act as blood thinners, which makes it difficult to stop bleeding.
With all biopsies, there is a risk of infection, bleeding, and scarring. Call your doctor if you have a fever following the procedure (it could mean you have an infection), if the site of your biopsy won’t stop bleeding, or if there are signs of redness, swelling, or drainage from the biopsy site.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What are needle biopsies used for beyond diagnosing cancer?
- Is the risk of biopsy complications worse for patients with Type 2 diabetes?
- What if my child is having a biopsy and won’t be still for the procedure?
- How long does it take to get the biopsy results?
- Is there a way to reduce scarring?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.