A lung biopsy may be used to diagnose lung cancer. The procedure is typically painless and takes less than an hour.

A lung biopsy involves taking a sample of tissue from the lungs for laboratory testing. This may be done for a variety of reasons, including testing for lung cancer.

Scans like a CT scan, MRI scan, or chest X-ray scan may show signs of cancer. Then, a lung biopsy is often used to confirm the diagnosis.

Learn more about lung biopsies, how long they take, when to expect results, and what happens after the test is over.

There are different kinds of lung biopsies, and each may take varying amounts of time.

Needle lung biopsy

A needle lung biopsy may also be referred to as a percutaneous lung biopsy. During this procedure, a sample of lung tissue is taken via a needle placed into the lung through the skin.

This procedure takes place under local anesthesia and uses either an ultrasound or CT scanner as a guide. A needle lung biopsy usually takes less than 45 minutes.

Transbronchial biopsy

A transbronchial biopsy uses a flexible tube called a bronchoscope to take a sample of tissue from the lungs. The tube is inserted into the body via the nose or mouth and down into the lungs.

This procedure involves sedation. It typically takes less than 60 minutes from start to finish.

Open lung biopsy

An open lung biopsy requires a general anesthetic. The procedure involves making an incision in the side of the body toward the back of the lung. A sample of tissue from the lungs is taken, and the incision is closed up with stitches.

During this procedure, a chest drain is also inserted to help in the expansion of the lungs during the procedure to allow fluid to drain out.

How long an open lung biopsy takes can vary, but it typically takes around 1 hour.

Once a sample is taken from a lung biopsy, it’s sent to a laboratory for testing.

At the laboratory, a doctor called a pathologist will conduct tests on the sample to determine whether cancer cells are present. During this process, the pathologist may also conduct tests to help classify the type of cancer present.

Results will then be detailed in a pathology report and sent to your doctor. This report is usually available within a week of the lung biopsy.

At some facilities, a radiologist will be able to share results with you directly.

Typically, a lung biopsy is not painful.

If a general anesthetic is used for the procedure, you’ll be asleep and won’t be aware of or feel anything that is happening.

If you’re not under a general anesthetic, a mild sedative may be administered to help you relax during the procedure.

A local anesthetic will be used to numb the area where the needle will be inserted. When this happens, you may feel a slight prick. When the biopsy needle is inserted into the body, you may feel slight pressure, but this shouldn’t be painful.

Some biopsies, like an open biopsy, may require a few days’ stay in the hospital. For other procedures with only a light sedative, you may be able to go home once the sedative wears off.

You may experience some slight pain at the site of the biopsy once local anesthesia begins to wear off. This will improve with time, and you’ll be given pain relief medication if needed.

You should avoid heavy lifting and physical exertion for at least a day following the procedure.

Pain will usually fade over the 12 to 48 hours following the procedure.

Sharp pain or pain in the shoulders with breathing can be a sign of a collapsed lung. This can sometimes occur with a needle biopsy. Other symptoms may include:

  • rapid heart rate
  • shortness of breath
  • bluish tint to the skin

If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor right away or go to the hospital.

Tumor seeding, also called needle seeding, is when a biopsy needle inserted into the body to sample a tumor dislodges cancer cells and allows them to spread along the track of the needle.

Studies on this have gotten mixed results, though instances of tumor seeding have been reported, including in lung cancer cases.

The National Cancer Institute says that the chance of cancer spreading through a biopsy or surgical procedure is extremely low.

Physicians take steps to prevent the spread of cancer cells during biopsies and when removing tumors. For example, if taking tissue from more than one part of the body, different tools are used for each area.

Once your biopsy results come in, your doctor will have a discussion with you about the next steps.

If cancer is found, more tests may be needed to determine the stage of cancer. Staging refers to the size of a tumor and the extent to which it has spread. Knowing the staging will help determine what treatment options may be best for you.

Your doctor will discuss the possible treatment options available to you as well as the pros and cons of each.

They’ll also discuss the goals of treatment with you. Curing lung cancer completely isn’t always a realistic goal. Sometimes treatment focused on controlling lung cancer or keeping you comfortable may be preferred.

Following diagnosis, your doctor will be able to work with you to answer any questions you may have and discuss the outlook for your cancer.

It’s important to ask questions during this period, and it’s also OK to seek a second opinion.

There are many different kinds of lung biopsies. A doctor may recommend a lung biopsy to check for cancer. In some cases, prior tests like chest X-rays, or CT scans initially indicate lung cancer may be present, and a lung biopsy can be used to confirm a diagnosis.

Typically, lung biopsies are not painful and take an hour or less. A general anesthetic or a mild sedative may be used. Results are usually available within a week.