What is a Liver Biopsy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A liver biopsy is a medical procedure in which a sample of tissue from a patient's liver is removed for analysis. Liver biopsies are used to gather information about suspected liver disorders, such as hepatocellular carcinomas, and the procedure is typically performed in a hospital environment. There are several different biopsy techniques which can be used to remove the sample, with a doctor selecting a technique on the basis of personal preference and the patient's situation.

During a liver biopsy, a portion of the organ is removed for medical analysis.
During a liver biopsy, a portion of the organ is removed for medical analysis.

In a needle biopsy, which is often guided by ultrasound or another imaging technique, a doctor carefully inserts a needle into the liver and takes a small sample. In open or surgical biopsy, the patient's abdomen is accessed surgically in order to remove a portion of the liver. Once the sample is removed, it can be taken for a pathology lab for analysis. The pathologist will look for abnormalities such as cells which do not belong or large fat deposits, and generate a report for the physician who ordered the liver biopsy.

The results of a liver ultrasound can help guide a doctor during a liver biopsy.
The results of a liver ultrasound can help guide a doctor during a liver biopsy.

Anesthetic is used during the procedure to keep the patient comfortable. With needle biopsies, a local anesthetic is usually all that is required, while surgical biopsies necessitate general anesthesia. The risks of a liver biopsy are significantly lower with a needle biopsy, but they can include hemorrhage, bleeding, and pneumothorax. Very rarely, the patient may need to be hospitalized as a result of complications from a liver biopsy. Surgical biopsies require a longer healing time after the procedure, and they carry the risks associated with anesthesia.

If the results of a liver biopsy are normal, no further action may be required. Questionable or inconclusive results may necessitate further testing, including the possibility of another liver biopsy to get a better sample. If the test reveals something like the presence of cancerous cells, the doctor can discuss the condition and the treatment options with the patient.

When a doctor recommends a liver biopsy, a patient should ask about the risks and healing time involved with the particular procedure which will be used. He or she should also ask why the biopsy is being performed, what the implications of various results might be, and how long it will take to get results. Some other considerations include how long the procedure will take, whether or not it will be necessary to get a ride home afterwards, and whether or not other tests can or should be conducted at the same time.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have heard several instances in which people have had complications due to liver biopsies and I was wondering if how often these occur and what the liver biopsy risks are?

I would figure that the risks would be minimal, but a normal person, like me, without any medical expertise may not know or understand these types of things.

I know that the liver is definitely something that if there is any type of sign indicating something like cirrhosis or cancer then it is necessary to have a liver biopsy to make sure that it can be treated or to simply assess the damage and determine the next course of action.

I am simply wondering the risks because this is the first step in determining how serious someone's condition may be.


@Izzy78 - To be totally honest one does not need their entire liver in order to survive.

The liver can function in a manageable manner with even only half the liver remaining and in some cases less than that.

Just think, in order to remove a cancerous part of the liver or part of the liver that succumbed to liver cirrhosis has to be removed and this can sometimes be a significant portion of the liver and can result in life long complications, but the person will still be able to live a normal life.

It does seem odd, but large portions of the liver can be removed and the person can still be able to function. The same cannot be said for several other organs in the body but the liver is very different than those.


@JimmyT - Since you need to have your liver to survive what happens when you have a portion of your liver removed during the biopsy?

I would imagine that it is a part of the liver that can be simply removed in a small portion and may be like a skin sample or something.

I would think that removing part of the liver would be an extremely complex procedure as one does not want to remove a portion that is necessary for survival.

I guess I am assuming that a liver biopsy is very complex, because it is an amputation in my mind and I am wondering how much they remove and how it is possible to remove part of something that you need to survive?


It is very important for someone to get a liver biopsy if there is any indication that there may be a growth on the liver that could show something that may be dangerous and affect a person's long term health.

Liver cirrhosis and cancer in the liver can be determined through a biopsy and the doctor can determine the next course of action and see what the patient is dealing with in terms of what must be done to help them.

Problems with the liver are definitely something that someone does not want to have and it is very important for anyone with suspected liver problems to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible in order to make sure they maintain their long term health.

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