What are Biopsies?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

A biopsy is a medical test in which small samples of tissue, cells, or fluid are extracted from the body to be examined by a pathologist. A microscope is most often used when examining tissue, although fluid samples usually undergo a chemical analysis. The primary purpose of the tests is cancer detection. However, the tests can also reveal the presence of inflammatory and metabolic disorders. In addition, they can help determine the cause of infertility in men, as well as match donor tissue prior to an organ transplant.

A large mass, or a portion of it, is surgically removed for analysis in an open biopsy.
A large mass, or a portion of it, is surgically removed for analysis in an open biopsy.

There are several different types of procedures. In a percutaneous biopsy, a needle and syringe are used to capture fluid and cell samples. This procedure is also known as a Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) and is commonly used to test a breast lump. Other types of exams performed when breast cancer is suspected include a Core Needle Biopsy and Vacuum Assisted Biopsy. In these procedures, tissue samples are collected from a solid mass in a core needle and, if multiple samples are needed from the same site, a special vacuum technique is applied.

During a biopsy, small samples of tissue, cells, or fluid are taken from the body, and examined under a microscope.
During a biopsy, small samples of tissue, cells, or fluid are taken from the body, and examined under a microscope.

Surgical, or open biopsies are performed under anesthesia in a hospital, usually in the operating room. During this procedure, the entire mass or a large portion thereof is surgically removed for analysis. A variation of this procedure is the closed exam, in which a small incision is made and a tiny camera is inserted for visual exploration of the site. This helps the surgeon to pinpoint the best location from which to take a sample.

An excision biopsy is sometimes referred to as a surgical biopsy.
An excision biopsy is sometimes referred to as a surgical biopsy.

Sometimes, these tests can be performed without having to go under anesthesia and a knife. In fact, most skin biopsies are done in a doctor’s office or clinic on an outpatient basis. When basal cell carcinoma is suspected, the site may be sampled by fine needle aspirate, or by collecting epidermal cells in a curettage biopsy. However, small melanomas are best diagnosed by excisional biopsy, in which the entire mass is incised and extracted.

An oncologist or other physician may order a biopsy to diagnose the status of a patient's tumor.
An oncologist or other physician may order a biopsy to diagnose the status of a patient's tumor.

There are generally few side effects or risks involved with biopsies beyond preventing infection at the site. However, excessive bleeding can be of concern. For this reason, it is important to inform the clinician of all medications that are being taken, including herbs and other dietary supplements. In fact, it may be necessary to temporarily cease taking these agents to reduce the risk of bleeding. That’s because some substances thin the blood, including many herbs, Warfarin (coumadin), and aspirin.

A mole may need to be biopsied if skin cancer is suspected.
A mole may need to be biopsied if skin cancer is suspected.
An excision biopsy is typically used to remove questionable tissue in order to have it analyzed by a pathologist.
An excision biopsy is typically used to remove questionable tissue in order to have it analyzed by a pathologist.
Surgical biopsies are performed under anesthesia.
Surgical biopsies are performed under anesthesia.
A surgical biopsy typically requires stitiches.
A surgical biopsy typically requires stitiches.
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments

anon42090

I just had a prostat biopsy; this is actually my third biopsy. In the first two there was blood in my urine. This time there is none. Should I be concerned.

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