Liver Biopsy

Written by Brian Krans | Published on July 6, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What Is a Liver Biopsy?

A biopsy of the liver is a medical procedure in which a small amount of liver tissue is surgically removed so it can be tested in a laboratory.

Liver biopsies are usually done to detect the presence of abnormal cells in the liver, such as cancer cells. Your doctor may order this test if blood or imaging tests indicate there are problems with your liver.

The liver is a vital organ. It produces proteins and enzymes responsible for essential metabolic processes, removes contaminants from your blood, helps fight infection, and stores essential vitamins and nutrients. Problems with your liver can make you very sick or lead to death.

Why a Liver Biopsy Is Performed

If you have been experiencing symptoms related to your digestive system, if you are experiencing pain, or if your laboratory tests point to the liver as an area of concern, your doctor may order a biopsy to help determine if an area is infected, inflamed, or cancerous. According to the Mayo Clinic, a liver biopsy is usually done if you received abnormal results from other liver tests, have a tumor or mass on your liver, or suffer from consistent, unexplainable fevers. (Mayo)

While imaging tests—such as computed tomography (CT) scans and X-rays—can help identify areas of concern, they cannot differentiate between cancerous and noncancerous cells. For this, you need a biopsy.

Although biopsies are typically associated with cancer, it does not mean you have cancer if your doctor orders this test. Biopsies also allow doctors to see if another condition, besides cancer, is causing your symptoms.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a liver biopsy can be used to diagnose or monitor a number of liver disorders. (NIH) Some conditions that affect the liver and may require a biopsy include:

  • alcoholic liver disease
  • autoimmune hepatitis
  • chronic hepatitis (B or C)
  • hemochromatosis (too much iron in the blood)
  • nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • primary biliary cirrhosis (which leads to scarring on the liver)
  • primary sclerosing cholangitis (which affects the liver’s bile ducts)
  • Wilson’s disease (an inherited and degenerative liver disease caused by excess copper in the body)

The Risks of a Liver Biopsy

Any medical procedure that involves breaking the skin carries the risk of infection and bleeding. However, the incision for a liver biopsy is small and needle biopsies are less invasive—so the risk is much lower.

How to Prepare for a Liver Biopsy

Biopsies don’t require much preparation on the part of the patient. Depending on your condition, your doctor may ask you to:

  • undergo a physical examination and complete medical history
  • stop taking any medications that affect bleeding, including pain relievers, anticoagulants, and certain supplements
  • have your blood drawn for a blood test
  • fast—including liquids—for up to eight hours before the procedure
  • arrange for someone to drive you home

How a Liver Biopsy Is Performed

Just before the procedure, you’ll change into a hospital gown. Your doctor will give you a sedative through an intravenous (IV) line to help you relax.

There are three main types of liver biopsies:

  • percutaneous: Also called a needle biopsy, this biopsy involves putting a thin needle through the abdomen and into the liver. The Mayo Clinic states that it is the most common type of liver biopsy. (Mayo)
  • transjugular: This procedure involves making a small incision at the neck. A thin flexible tube is inserted through the neck’s jugular vein and into the liver. This method is used for people who have bleeding disorders.
  • laparoscopic: This technique uses tube-like instruments that collect the sample through a small incision in the abdomen.

The kind of anesthesia your doctor gives you will depend on which type of liver biopsy he or she performs. The percutaneous and transjugular biopsies use local anesthesia, meaning that only the affected area is numbed. Laparoscopic biopsies require general anesthesia, so you will be in a deep, painless sleep during the procedure.

When your biopsy is complete, any incision wounds will be closed with stitches and properly bandaged. You will typically have to lie in bed for a few hours after the procedure while doctors monitor your vital signs.

Once you receive approval from your healthcare provider, you are free to go home. According to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, you should take it easy and rest for the next 24 hours. However, you should be able to get back to your normal life after a few days. (NIDDK)

After a Liver Biopsy

After the tissue sample is taken, it will be sent to a laboratory for testing. This could take up to a few weeks.

When the results are back, your doctor will call you or ask you in for a follow-up appointment to share the results. Once a diagnosis is reached, your doctor will discuss any recommend treatment plans or next steps with you.

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