A lymph node biopsy is the removal of lymph node tissue for examination under a microscope.
The lymph nodes are small glands that make white blood cells (lymphocytes), which fight infection. Lymph nodes may trap the germs that are causing an infection. Cancer can spread to lymph nodes.
A lymph node biopsy is done in an operating room in a hospital or at an outpatient surgical center. The biopsy may be done in different ways.
An open biopsy is surgery to remove all or part of the lymph node. This is usually done if there is a lymph node that can be felt on exam. This can be done with local anesthesia (numbing medicine) injected into the area, or under general anesthesia. The procedure is typically done in the following way:
For some cancers, a special way of finding the best lymph node to biopsy is used. This is called sentinel lymph node biopsy, and it involves:
A tiny amount of a tracer, either a radioactive tracer (radioisotope) or a blue dye or both, is injected at the tumor site.
The tracer or dye flows into the nearest (local) node or nodes. These nodes are called the sentinel nodes. The sentinel nodes are the first lymph nodes to which a cancer may spread.
The sentinel node or nodes are removed.
Lymph node biopsies in the belly may be removed with a laparoscope. This is a small tube with a light and camera that is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen. One or more other incisions will be made and tools will be inserted to help remove the node. The lymph node is located and a piece of it is removed. This is usually performed under general anesthesia, which means the person having this procedure will be asleep and pain-free.
After the sample is removed, it is sent to the laboratory for examination.
A needle biopsy involves inserting a needle into a lymph node. This type of biopsy is done less often because the results are not as helpful as with an open biopsy.
Tell your provider:
Your provider may ask you to:
When the local anesthetic is injected, you will feel a prick and a mild stinging. The biopsy site will be sore for a few days after the test.
After an open or laparoscopic biopsy, the pain is mild and you can easily control it with an over-the-counter pain medicine. You may also notice some bruising or fluid leaking for a few days. Follow instructions for taking care of the incision. While the incision is healing, avoid any type of intense exercise or heavy lifting that causes pain or discomfort. Ask your provider for specific instructions about what activities you can do.
The test is used to diagnose cancer, sarcoidosis, or an infection (such as tuberculosis):
The results of the biopsy help your provider decide on further tests and treatments.
If a lymph node biopsy does not show any signs of cancer, it is more likely that other lymph nodes nearby are also cancer-free. This information can help the provider decide about further tests and treatments.
Abnormal results may be due to many different conditions, from very mild infections to cancer.
For example, enlarged lymph nodes may be due to:
Lymph node biopsy may result in any of the following:
Reviewed By: Debra G. Wechter, MD, FACS, general surgery practice specializing in breast cancer, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.