Doctor Decoded: What’s a Biopsy (and Does It Hurt)?

Biopsies are crucial for revealing what’s going on in your body.

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While you and your doctor are trying to get to the bottom of the weird symptoms you’ve been having, your doctor says he needs to take a biopsy. “We’re just gonna remove a small tissue sample,” he says casually. 

Remove? As in cut out?! Sounds painful.

As queasy as biopsies may sound, these are actually simple and relatively painless procedures. 

A biopsy is a procedure in which your doctor removes a cell or tissue sample from your body, which is then checked by a pathologist under a microscope for evidence of disease or other problems. For example, your doctor might suggest a biopsy to test for cancer, or to look for inflammation in certain organs (which might suggest an autoimmune disease or infection).

There are different ways to take a biopsy. Some biopsies are taken using a special tool during an endoscopy, which is when a small camera is used to examine the digestive tract. A doctor will be able to view the inner lining of the tract and take a biopsy of an area that appears inflamed or damaged.

This type of biopsy doesn’t hurt at all. You’ll already be under general anesthesia for the endoscopy, so you won’t feel a thing. (Find out the difference between local and general anesthesia here.) 

Other types of biopsies use needles, such as a core-needle biopsy. This is when a needle is inserted into the skin to take a tissue sample. For example, you might use a core-needle biopsy to check for cancer in the breast. For this type of biopsy, you’ll receive local anesthesia to numb the area and make the biopsy mostly painless—although the area may feel sore or have other side effects afterwards.

Another type of biopsy is actually a surgery. This is when the doctor isn’t simply taking a sample, but actually removing lumps or other suspicious tissue, which then gets sent for testing. For example, a lumpectomy for breast cancer is a type of surgical biopsy. 

Surgical biopsies are obviously more extensive procedures that may come with side effects and recovery after the procedure, but again, anesthesia can help make the procedure itself painless.

Most biopsies are fairly simple procedures that can yield complex answers—with little to no pain for you, thanks to anesthesia. Still nervous? Talk to your doctor about what to expect before, during, and after the biopsy.