A liver biopsy is a quick and simple method of obtaining a sample of liver for analysis. Because so many different problems can occur in the liver, some causing permanent damage, a biopsy provides important information for evaluating and treating liver disorders. Biopsies also can help identify the cause of the problem and the severity of the condition, which could include virus infections, reactions to drugs or alcohol, tumors, hereditary conditions and problems with the body’s immune system. Finding the cause is important because there are effective treatments for many liver disorders. Early, specific and effective therapy often can prevent irreversible liver damage.
A biopsy is a tiny sample of body tissue – in this case, liver tissue – that is removed by the physician. The tissue is prepared and stained in a laboratory so the physician can view it under a microscope. This usually helps the physician make a specific diagnosis and determine the extent and seriousness of the condition, which is vital in determining treatment.
Your physician will always take a medical history and perform a physical exam. Blood studies, known as liver function tests (LFT), give an overview of the health of the liver. If LFT results are persistently abnormal, the physician will then perform additional medical tests, including a biopsy, to determine the exact cause of the problem.
The liver biopsy is usually performed on an outpatient basis. Your physician may give you a mild sedative prior to the procedure. The entire procedure usually lasts only 15 to 20 minutes. You will be asked to lie on your back or slightly to the left side. The area of the skin where the biopsy will be done is carefully cleaned. Then a local anesthetic is used to numb the skin and tissue and a specially designed thin needle is inserted through the skin. At this point, your physician will tell you how to breathe. The needle is advanced into and out of the liver. This takes only one or two seconds. A slender core of tissue is removed with the needle and is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
You must rest for several hours following the exam and members of the medical staff will monitor your heart rate and blood pressure. You may experience some discomfort in your chest or shoulder; however, this is usually temporary. Medication is available for this discomfort if needed. Before being discharged, your physician will give you instructions about returning to normal activities and about eating. Activity is usually restricted for a day or so after the biopsy.
While some complications can occur, they are unusual. In most instances, a liver biopsy is obtained quickly and with no problems. You may experience some fleeting discomfort in the right side or shoulder. Also, internal bleeding can sometimes occur, or a leak of bile from the liver or gallbladder. These problems are rare and can usually be handled without surgery.