Lung biopsy is a procedure for obtaining a small sample of lung tissue for examination. The tissue is usually examined under a microscope, and may be sent to a microbiological laboratory for culture. Microscopic examination is performed by a pathologist.
A lung biopsy is usually performed to determine the cause of abnormalities, such as nodules that appear on chest x rays. It can confirm a diagnosis of cancer, especially if malignant cells are detected in the patient's sputum or bronchial washing. In addition to evaluating lung tumors and their associated symptoms, lung biopsies may be used to diagnose lung infections, especially tuberculosis and Pneumocystis pneumonia, drug reactions, and chronic diseases of the lungs such as sarcoidosis and pulmonary fibrosis.
A lung biopsy can be used for treatment as well as diagnosis. Bronchoscopy , a type of lung biopsy performed with a long, flexible slender instrument called a bronchoscope, can be used to clear a patient's air passages of secretions and to remove airway blockages.
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 77% of all cancers are diagnosed in people ages 55 and older. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Each year, about 170,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer. It is much more prevalent among African Americans than the general population. Nine out of 10 cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars.
The right and left lungs are separated by the mediastinum, which contains the heart, trachea, lymph nodes, and esophagus. Lung biopsies sometimes involve mediastinoscopy .
Lung biopsies are performed using a variety of techniques, depending on where the abnormal tissue is located in the lung, the health and age of the patient, and the presence of lung disease. A bronchoscopy is ordered if a lesion identified on the x ray seems to be located on the wall (periphery) of the chest. If the suspicious area lies close to the chest wall, a needle biopsy can be done. If both methods fail to diagnose the problem, an open lung biopsy may be performed. When there is a question about whether the lung cancer or suspicious mass has spread to the lymph nodes in the mediastinum, a mediastinoscopy is performed.
BRONCHOSCOPIC BIOPSY. During the bronchoscopy, a thin, lighted tube (bronchoscope) is passed from the nose or mouth, down the windpipe (trachea) to the air passages (bronchi) leading to the lungs. Through the bronchoscope, the physician views the airways, and is able to clear mucus from blocked airways, and collect cells or tissue samples for laboratory analysis.
NEEDLE BIOPSY. The patient is mildly sedated, but awake during the needle biopsy procedure. He or she sits in a chair with arms folded in front on a table. An x ray technician uses a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scanner or a fluoroscope to identify the precise location of the suspicious areas. Markers are placed on the overlying skin to identify the biopsy site. The skin is thoroughly cleansed with an antiseptic solution, and a local anesthetic is injected to numb the area. The patient will feel a brief stinging sensation when the anesthetic is injected.
The physician makes a small incision, about half an inch (1.25 cm) in length. The patient is asked to take a deep breath and hold it while the physician inserts the biopsy needle through the incision into the lung tissue to be biopsied. The patient may feel pressure, and a brief sharp pain when the needle touches the lung tissue. Most patients do not experience severe pain. The patient should refrain from coughing during the procedure. The needle is withdrawn when enough tissue has been obtained. Pressure is applied at the biopsy site and a sterile bandage is placed over the incision. A chest x ray is performed immediately after the procedure to check for potential complications. The entire procedure takes 30 to 60 minutes.
OPEN BIOPSY. Open biopsies are performed in a hospital operating room under general anesthesia. Once the anesthesia has taken effect, the surgeon makes an incision over the lung area, a procedure called a thoracotomy . Some lung tissue is removed and the incision is closed with sutures. Chest tubes are placed with one end inside the lung and the other end protruding through the closed incision. Chest tubes are used to drain fluid and blood, and re-expand the lungs. They are usually removed the day after the procedure. The entire procedure normally takes about an hour. A chest x ray is performed immediately after the procedure to check for potential complications.
VIDEO-ASSISTED THORACOSCOPIC SURGERY. A minimally invasive technique, video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) can be used to biopsy lung and mediastinal lesions. VATS may be performed on selected patients in place of open lung biopsy. While the patient is under general anesthetia, the surgeon makes several small incisions in the his or her chest wall. A thorascope, a thin, hollow, lighted tube with a tiny video camera mounted on it, is inserted through one of the small incisions. The other incisions allow the surgeon to insert special instruments to retrieve tissue for biopsy.
MEDIASTINOSCOPY. This procedure is performed under general anesthesia. A 2–3 in (5–8 cm) incision is made at the base of the neck. A thin, hollow, lighted tube, called a mediastinoscope, is inserted through the incision into the space between the right and the left lungs. The surgeon removes any lymph nodes or tissues that look abnormal. The mediastinoscope is then removed, and the incision is sutured and bandaged. A mediastinoscopy takes about an hour.
Before scheduling a lung biopsy, the physician performs a careful evaluation of the patient's medical history and symptoms, and performs a physical examination . Chest x rays and sputum cytology (examination of cells obtained from a deep-cough mucus sample) are other diagnostic tests that may be performed. An electrocardiogram (EKG) and laboratory tests may be performed before the procedure to check for blood clotting problems, anemia, and blood type, should a transfusion become necessary.
During a preoperative appointment, usually scheduled within one to two weeks before the procedure, the patient receives information about what to expect during the procedure and the recovery period. During this appointment or just before the procedure, the patient usually meets with the physician (or physicians) performing the procedure (the pulmonologist, interventional radiologist, or thoracic surgeon).
A chest x ray or CAT scan of the chest is used to identify the area to be biopsied.
About an hour before the biopsy procedure, the patient receives a sedative. Medication may also be given to dry up airway secretions. General anesthesia is not used for this procedure.
For at least 12 hours before the open biopsy, VATS, or mediastinoscopy procedures, the patient should not eat or drink anything. Prior to these procedures, an intravenous line is placed in a vein in the patient's arm to deliver medications or fluids as necessary. A hollow tube, called an endotracheal tube, is passed through the patient's mouth into the airway leading to the lungs. Its purpose is to deliver the general anesthetic. The chest area is cleansed with an antiseptic solution. In the mediastinoscopy procedure, the neck is also cleansed to prepare for the incision.
Patients who will undergo surgical diagnostic and treatment procedures should be encouraged to stop smoking and stop using tobacco products. The patient needs to make the commitment to be a nonsmoker after the procedure. Patients able to stop smoking several weeks before surgical procedures have fewer postoperative complications. Smoking cessation programs are available in many communities. The patient should ask a health care provider for more information if he or she needs help with smoking cessation.
Informed consent is an educational process between health care providers and patients. Before any procedure is performed, the patient is asked to sign a consent form. Prior to signing the form, the patient should understand the nature and purpose of the diagnostic procedure or treatment, its risks and benefits, and alternatives, including the option of not proceeding with the test or treatment. During the discussions, the health care providers are available to answer the patient's questions about the consent form or procedure.
Following a needle biopsy, the patient is allowed to rest comfortably. He or she may be required to lie flat for two hours following the procedure to prevent the risk of bleeding. The nurse checks the patient's status at two-hour intervals. If there are no complications after four hours, the patient can go home once he or she has received instructions about resuming normal activities. The patient should rest at home for a day or two before returning to regular activities, and should avoid strenuous activities for one week after the biopsy.
After an open biopsy, VATS, or mediastinoscopy, the patient is taken to the recovery room for observation. The patient receives oxygen via a face mask or nasal cannula. If no complications develop, the patient is taken to a hospital room. Temperature, blood oxygen level, pulse, blood pressure, and respiration are monitored. Chest tubes remain in place after surgery to prevent the lungs from collapsing, and to remove blood and fluids. The tubes are usually removed the day after the procedure.
The patient may experience some grogginess for a few hours after the procedure. He or she may have a sore throat from the endotracheal tube. The patient may also have some pain or discomfort at the incision site, which can be relieved by pain medication. It is common for patients to require some pain medication for up to two weeks following the procedure.
After receiving instructions about resuming normal activities and caring for the incision, the patient usually goes home the day after surgery. The patient should not drive while taking narcotic pain medication.
Patients may experience fatigue and muscle aches for a day or two because of the general anesthesia. The patient can gradually increase activities, as tolerated. Walking is recommended. Sutures are usually removed after one to two weeks.
The physician should be notified immediately if the patient experiences extreme pain, light-headedness, or difficulty breathing after the procedure. Sputum may be slightly bloody for a day or two after the procedure. Heavy or persistent bleeding requires evaluation by the physician.
Lung biopsies should not be performed on patients who have a bleeding disorder or abnormal blood clotting because of low platelet counts, or prolonged prothrombin time (PT) or partial thromboplastin time (PTT). Platelets are small blood cells that play a role in the blood clotting process. PT and PTT measure how well blood is clotting. If clotting times are prolonged, it may be unsafe to perform a biopsy because of the risk of bleeding. If the platelet count is lower than 50,000/cubic mm, the patient may be given a platelet transfusion as a temporary relief measure, and a biopsy can then be performed.
In addition, lung biopsies should not be performed if other tests indicate the patient has enlarged alveoli associated with emphysema, pulmonary hypertension, or enlargement of the right ventricle of the heart (cor pulmonale).
The normal risks of any surgical procedure include bleeding, infection, or pneumonia. The risk of these complications is higher in patients undergoing open biopsy procedures, as is the risk of pneumothorax (lung collapse). In rare cases, the lung collapses because of air that leaks in through the hole made by the biopsy needle. A chest x ray is done immediately after the biopsy to detect the development of this potential complication. If a pneumothorax occurs, a chest tube is inserted into the pleural cavity to re-expand the lung. Signs of pneumothorax include shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, or blueness of the skin (a late sign). If the patient has any of these symptoms after being discharged from the hospital, it is important to call the health care provider or emergency services immediately.
Bronchoscopy is generally safe, and complications are rare. If they do occur, complications may include spasms of the bronchial tubes that can impair breathing, irregular heart rhythms, or infections such as pneumonia.
Needle biopsy is associated with fewer risks than open biopsy because it does not involve general anesthesia. Some hemoptysis (coughing up blood) occurs in 5% of needle biopsies. Prolonged bleeding or infection may also occur, although these are very rare complications.
Possible complications of an open biopsy include infection or pneumothorax. If the patient has very severe breathing problems before the biopsy, breathing may be further impaired following the operation. Patients with normal lung function prior to the biopsy have a very small risk of respiratory problems resulting from or following the procedure.
Complications due to mediastinoscopy are rare. Possible complications include pneumothorax or bleeding caused by damage to the blood vessels near the heart. Mediastinitis, infection of the mediastinum, may develop. Injury to the esophagus or larynx may occur. If the nerves leading to the larynx are injured, the patient may be left with a permanently hoarse voice. All of these complications are rare.
Normal results indicate no evidence of infection in the lungs, no detection of lumps or nodules, and cells that are free from cancerous abnormalities.
Abnormal results of needle biopsy, VATS, and open biopsy may be associated with diseases other than cancer. Nodules in the lungs may be due to active infections such as tuberculosis, or may be scars from a previous infection. In 33% of biopsies using a mediastinoscope, the biopsied lymph nodes prove to be cancerous. Abnormal results should always be considered in the context of the patient's medical history, physical examination, and other tests such as sputum examination, and chest x rays before a final diagnosis is made.
The risk of death from needle biopsy is rare. The risk of death from open biopsy is one in 3,000 cases. In mediastinoscopy, death occurs in fewer than one in 3,000 cases.
The type of alternative diagnostic procedures available depend upon each patient's diagnosis.
Some people may be eligible to participate in clinical trials, research programs conducted with patients to evaluate a new medical treatment, drug, or device. The purpose of clinical trials is to find new and improved methods of treating different diseases and special conditions. For more information on current clinical trials, visit the National Institutes of Health's ClinicalTrials.gov at http://www.clinicaltrials.gov or call (888) FIND-NLM [(888) 346-3656] or (301) 594-5983.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has conducted a clinical trial to evaluate a technology—low-dose helical computed tomography—for its effectiveness in screening for lung cancer. One study concluded that this test is more sensitive in detecting specific conditions related to lung cancer than other screening tests.
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Angela M. Costello
Fiberoptic bronchoscopy is performed by pulmonologists, physician specialists in pulmonary medicine. CAT guided needle biopsy is done by interventional radiologists, physician specialists in radiological procedures. Thoracic surgeons perform open biopsies and VATS. Specially trained nurses, x ray, and laboratory technicians assist during the procedures and provide pre- and postoperative education and supportive care.
The procedures are performed in an operating or procedure room in a hospital.