A biopsy is a procedure that can help doctors diagnose diseases. It involves removing a tissue sample and sending it to a pathologist. Depending on the type of biopsy, results may take up to 10 days.

The word biopsy comes from the Greek words “bios,” meaning life, and “opsis,” meaning sight. Together, they mean “to view life.”

This article covers the different types and uses of biopsies and what a person should expect from the procedure.

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A biopsy involves a pathologist examining tissue samples for signs of diseases and the extent of their progression. A pathologist is a specialist doctor who examines bodily tissues and fluids to provide diagnoses that guide treatment decisions.

Depending on the location of the tissue, medical professionals may use different types of biopsies. The options include:

  • A scrape: In this procedure, a healthcare professional removes cells from the surface of the target tissue. This technique is common in cervical cancer screenings, known as Pap smears.
  • Punch biopsy: A punch is a round-shaped knife that cuts and removes a disk of tissue. This biopsy method can collect deep tissue samples that doctors can check for skin cancer progression.
  • Needle biopsy: Doctors may use a needle to take a sample of an organ or tissue under the skin. They can use a wide needle for a core biopsy or a thin one for a fine-needle aspiration biopsy (FNAB).
  • Stereotactic biopsy: A stereotactic system uses 3D imaging to locate cell abnormalities and guide sample collection. This technology is common in breast cancer screening and brain biopsies.
  • Colposcopic biopsy: A colposcopy allows doctors to evaluate a person following an abnormal cervical smear. The doctor may use a colposcope, which is a close-focusing telescope that makes it possible to see areas of the cervix in detail.
  • Endoscopic biopsy: In this procedure, healthcare professionals use an endoscope to collect the sample. An endoscope is a long, thin, optical instrument that doctors use to see deep inside the body. This biopsy may collect samples from the intestines, colon, lungs, and other internal pathways.

A biopsy helps doctors make a diagnosis by providing a piece of tissue for examination. Doctors use them to diagnose both cancerous and noncancerous diseases.

Biopsy uses include:

  • Cancer: Doctors use biopsies to determine whether a growth is cancerous. If the biopsy shows the growth to be cancerous, doctors may perform surgery to remove the growth.
  • Gastric biopsies: A stomach biopsy can help a doctor determine the cause of stomach pain. It will reveal any inflammation or bacterial organisms, such as Helicobacter pylori.
  • Lung biopsies: If a person has an abnormal lung mass, a radiologist and pathologist may perform a lung biopsy to determine whether it is an infectious noncancerous lesion or cancer.
  • Breast biopsies: Different types of biopsies can determine whether abnormalities in breast tissue are benign lesions or whether the mass is cancerous and requires further treatment.

A pathologist will typically examine tissue samples under a microscope to assess disease presence and progression.

In cases of suspected cancer, the pathologist will need to determine whether the sample is malignant, meaning cancerous, or benign. If it is malignant, they will assess how aggressive or advanced the cancer is, as this information will also guide treatment decisions.

Learn more about cancer stages.

Finally, the pathologist will prepare a report that includes any abnormal or important findings. They will send this report to the doctor who ordered the biopsy.

How long does it take?

The time that it takes to get the results will depend on the type of biopsy. A straightforward result may be ready within 1–2 days, but a more complex case may take longer. There are many possible causes of a delay in biopsy results. For example, doctors may require additional tests or seek a second opinion.

The extent to which a person needs to prepare will depend on the type of biopsy. No special preparation is necessary for an FNAB in a doctor’s office. The individual will just need to sign a consent form to confirm that they agree to the procedure, and they may have to wear a gown instead of their clothes.

In some cases, the doctor may ask the person to refrain from eating or drinking beforehand. A person should check with the doctor whether they can continue taking their usual medications or supplements as normal.


In most cases, a biopsy is an outpatient procedure, and the person may go home the same day.

If a person undergoes a more intensive procedure to take a sample from an internal organ, they may need to receive a general anesthetic and stay in the hospital overnight.


Different biopsy procedures will involve different uses of anesthetic. For example, in an FNAB, a doctor may only administer a local anesthetic to the puncture site. In contrast, scraping a tissue sample from the inside of the mouth usually requires no anesthesia at all.

However, those undergoing surgical biopsies may require a general anesthetic.

Learn more about the types of anesthesia.

Is it painful?

If a doctor uses anesthesia, there should be no pain during the procedure, although there will be a skin prick during the initial injection.

A person undergoing a needle biopsy might feel a sharp pinch. Depending on the type of biopsy, there may be some soreness at the incision or puncture sites for a few days.

Biopsies are typically safe, low risk procedures. As with any skin disturbance, there is a risk of infection and bleeding. In rare cases, excessive bleeding can occur. This may require further procedures to correct.

A biopsy can help doctors provide an early diagnosis of cancer and other diseases, and, in many cases, early detection is key to increasing survival rates.

It is critical to understand that biopsies are overwhelmingly safe procedures that can provide vital information for a person’s future health.

Doctors use biopsies to help identify cancer and other diseases. They involve collecting tissue samples from people and examining them under a microscope.

These procedures are typically safe and carry little risk of complication. Doctors can perform many biopsies under local anesthetic, allowing people to return home the same day. More invasive procedures may require a general anesthetic and an overnight stay.

Many people receive their biopsy results within 2 days.