A liver biopsy is a diagnostic procedure that doctors perform to examine the health of liver tissue. It sometimes causes a small amount of pain, which should be manageable with pain medication.

During a biopsy, a doctor removes cells from an organ to examine them for disease. Healthcare professionals perform most liver biopsies with a needle, which they insert between the ribs or below the ribcage. A small incision in the skin allows for the needle to pass through.

Alternatively, some surgical teams use a tube that they pass through a vein in the neck. They will use ultrasound to guide the needle into the liver. They then withdraw the needle quickly to remove the liver sample, and the individual will lay on their side afterward to apply pressure to the injection site and support clotting.

A healthcare professional will administer a local anesthetic to numb the skin before inserting the needle. In this case, the person should only feel pressure from the needle and no pain. However, there may be some pain following the procedure, which people can control with pain medication.

This article will cover:

  • the research on liver biopsy pain levels
  • how to manage pain both during and after a liver biopsy
  • potential liver biopsy complications
  • recovery time

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms, “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Researchers have studied people’s experience of pain during liver biopsies. Consistently, they have found that pain is minimal and occurs in just a minority of cases.

One 2022 study that looked at 558 people undergoing a liver biopsy recorded pain in 107 participants (19.2%). The pain was generally post-procedural and at the injection site.

A 2021 literature review examined 30 studies of liver biopsies. People only reported moderate or severe pain 0.34% of the time and as a minor complication 12.9% of the time. Mild pain was the most common minor complication.

In a 2015 study of the opioid painkiller pethidine, which doctors often use during liver biopsy procedures, patients’ self-reported pain scores during and immediately after the procedure were significantly lower when receiving medication than those in the placebo group. There was no difference in the two groups 1 hour or 24 hours after the procedure. In both groups, 94% of patients said they would be willing to undergo the procedure again.

A 2021 study in Brazil found that during follow-up in the recovery room, 8% of patients reported pain strong enough to require supplementary pain medication. Of those, 10.5% were female and 5.9% were male. Studies have consistently shown that females feel slightly more pain on liver biopsy than males.

A healthcare professional will perform a liver biopsy and may use an ultrasound to guide the needle into the liver. Before the biopsy, they will apply a local anesthetic to the biopsy area. This anesthetic will numb the area and may cause a temporary burning sensation.

Once the area is numb, the doctor will create a small skin incision, insert the needle, and perform the biopsy. There should be no pain during the procedure.

The doctor may also provide a sedative. This is something a person may wish to discuss with a doctor if they may feel anxious during the procedure.

Following a liver biopsy, an individual will need to remain in the hospital or clinic for several hours for monitoring. During this time, the surgical team will monitor their pain level.

About 20% of people experience some pain after a liver biopsy, but this does not usually prevent them from returning home the same day.

Doctor-prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are usually sufficient to provide the relief necessary for people to recover at home.

Most people recover quickly from a liver biopsy with no complications. There may be some soreness on the side of the biopsy for about 1 week.

It is not advisable to lift anything or bend for 24 hours following the liver biopsy.

The individual having a biopsy will not be able to drive home from the hospital and will need to arrange for another method of transport to return home.

With any surgical procedure, there are some possible complications. For a liver biopsy, these include:

  • pain or bruising at the injection or incision site
  • bleeding at the incision site
  • infection at the biopsy site
  • collapsed lung, if the needle punctured the pleural space, the cavity between the lungs and under the chest wall
  • hemothorax, if blood builds up in the pleural space
  • the puncture of organs other than the liver

If an individual has had a liver biopsy and experiences any of the following symptoms, they should seek care immediately:

  • dizziness
  • bleeding from the incision site
  • abdominal swelling or bloating
  • fever
  • swelling or redness at the incision
  • nausea or vomiting
  • chest pain
  • increasing abdominal pain
  • trouble breathing

A liver biopsy is a test that doctors perform to check the health of liver tissue. They make an incision either on the right side of the torso or the neck and pass a needle or tube through to the liver.

The doctor or surgical team will then send a sample of the extracted liver tissue to a lab for analysis.

Pain is a minor complication of a liver biopsy, but when it does occur, it is generally mild. Before the procedure, the surgical team numbs the skin with an anesthetic, meaning the person does not feel pain. The only feeling during the procedure should be pressure.

Following the procedure, there may be some soreness lasting for up to 1 week. However, these symptoms should be mild and controllable with prescription or OTC pain relievers.