A biopsy is a sample of tissue from a living organism which is used as a diagnostic tool. Biopsies are carried out to identify various diseases, or to eliminate certain causes for symptoms. There are a number of ways in which a doctor can collect a biopsy, and an assortment of techniques can be used to analyze the resulting sample. If you have been scheduled for this procedure, you may want to talk to your doctor about the specific technique which will be used to collect the sample.
When a patient complains of a medical problem, a doctor uses an assortment of techniques to diagnose the problem. Most doctors try to start with non-invasive procedures before they turn to taking tissue samples. A biopsy may be needed when other diagnostic tools reveal no obvious problem, or when a scan of the patient's body shows that there is an area of irregularity which may require a closer look.
The most basic sample can be taken with a scraping. A doctor would rub a swab on a patient's skin, for example, to grab a sample so the cause of a skin condition could be determined. Biopsies can also be taken with large-bore needles which basically remove a core sample, and in some cases graspers or forceps are used inside the body, with the assistance of endoscopic tools to help the doctor see. The procedure can also be done using surgical techniques, in which a small section of the area of interest is cut out.
A surgical biopsy can also be a useful tool when it is clear that the problem may be caused by a malignancy. This procedure can be used to remove questionable moles or lymph nodes near a cancerous region in their entirety, reducing the risk that the problem might spread. When a pathologist examines the sample, he or she can determine whether or not it was malignant, and whether or not the surgeon needs to remove more material for the patient's safety.
A pathologist can look at the sample under a microscope for obvious signs of irregularity, or use chemical testing methods to check for less obvious conditions. Once the pathologist has studied the sample, he or she sends the results to the physician who requested the procedure, along with recommendations for treatment which the physician may consider in a treatment plan. In the case of a malignancy, the results will also state the biopsy either had “positive margins,” meaning that the doctor needs to remove more tissue, or “negative margins,” which indicate that the entire malignancy was removed.