Lymph node biopsy

A lymph node biopsy is when your doctor removes all or part of a lymph node. They send the sample to the laboratory to be looked at under a microscope. It is a simple procedure. You have a local or general anaesthetic depending on where the lymph node is.

Why you might have it

There are many different reasons why you might have a swollen lymph node, such as an infection. A lymph node biopsy is the only way to find out for sure why a lymph node is swollen.

Preparing for your biopsy

Check your appointment letter for how to prepare for your biopsy. You will sign a consent form before you have the test. This is a good time to ask the doctor any questions. 

If you normally take medicines to thin your blood, your doctor might ask you to stop them before your biopsy.

Local anaesthetic

You can usually eat and drink as normal before the biopsy if you’re having a local anaesthetic.

You usually have a local anaesthetic for swollen lymph nodes close to the surface of your body that are easy to reach. Your doctor gives you an injection to numb the area around the lymph node.

General anaesthetic

You usually can't eat for about 6 hours before you have a general anaesthetic. You may be able to drink water up to 2 hours before the operation.

You usually have a general anaesthetic for lymph nodes that are deeper in your body. This means you are asleep for the procedure.

During the biopsy

You usually have the lymph node biopsy in the day surgery unit or imaging (radiology) department. The procedure may take up to half an hour.

Your nurse gives you a hospital gown to put on. Your doctor cleans the skin above the swollen lymph node. They make a small cut in the skin and remove all or part of the lymph node. They send this to the laboratory where a specialist doctor (pathologist) looks at it under the microscope.

Your doctor closes the cut with a couple of stitches. They usually cover it with a small dressing.

Core needle biopsy

Your doctor may use a special needle to remove a sample of tissue from a swollen lymph node instead of removing the whole thing.

CT and ultrasound guided biopsy

You might have a CT or an ultrasound scan before your doctor takes the biopsy. This is usually for abnormal lymph nodes that aren’t close to the surface of the skin. The scan helps your doctor guide the needle into the right place to take the biopsy.

After the biopsy

Your nurse will check the dressing to look for signs of bleeding. If the dressing looks clean they are unlikely to take it off to look at the biopsy site. They also check your:

  • blood pressure
  • pulse and oxygen levels 
  • temperature

Most people go home the same day as the biopsy. You can usually go home shortly afterwards if you had a local anaesthetic.

It takes several hours to recover from a general anaesthetic. You can normally start drinking as soon as you're awake, and eating once you're hungry and don't feel sick. You need someone to take you home and stay with you for the first 24 hours.

Your nurse will tell you how to look after the wound over the next few days. You need to go back to the hospital or your GP surgery about 7 to 10 days later to have your stitches out. The area around the wound may be swollen, bruised and tender for a few days.

Getting your results

You usually get the results within 2 weeks. The doctor who arranged the biopsy will give them to you.

Waiting for test results can be worrying. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For support and information, you can call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Possible risks

A lymph node biopsy is a safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. 

You may have some mild pain or discomfort around the site. Taking a painkiller, such as paracetamol, can help. Contact the hospital if you still have pain more than a week afterwards.

Contact your GP or the hospital if you have a high temperature or feel unwell. Or if there is redness, swelling or fluid (discharge) at the biopsy site.

There is a small risk of bleeding. Your nurse can normally stop this by pressing on the area. Contact the hospital or go to A&E if there is a lot of blood from the biopsy site after you go home.

Last reviewed: 
25 Sep 2020
Next review due: 
25 Sep 2023
  • Guidelines for the first line management of classical Hodgkin lymphoma
    GA Follows, KM Ardeshna, SF Barrington and others
    British Journal of Haematology, 2014, Volume 166

  • Hodgkin’s Lymphoma: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    DA Eichenauer, A Engert, M André and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2018, Volume 29 (Supplement 4)

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