Decorative image

Needle biopsy

Find out what a needle biopsy is, how you have it and what happens after it.

You have this test to find out if the lump in your thyroid needs further treatment.

Preparing for your test

You are able to eat and drink normally before a biopsy. Take your medicines as normal. But if you are taking any blood thinning medicines you might need to stop them before the test. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when to stop.

What happens

Your doctor will feel for your thyroid lump, so that they can put the needle straight into the right place. They usually use an ultrasound scanner to help guide the needle in.

You may have an injection of local anaesthetic to numb the area first. Doctors don't always use anaesthetic because the needle to take the biopsy is very thin. Talk to your doctor before the test if you are worried about not having local anaesthetic.

Once the needle is in place, your doctor uses a syringe to suck out a small amount of fluid and cells. They send this sample to the laboratory for a specialist doctor (pathologist) to look at.

After your needle biopsy

You can get dressed and go home or back to work straight afterwards. You can go about doing your normal activities but avoid doing anything too strenuous for the rest of the day. Paracetamol can help if you’re sore or tender.

Your doctor or nurse will let you know how to look after the biopsy area and your dressing. You will be able to have a shower or bath as normal if you have a waterproof dressing. You might see some bruising at the site. This is normal, it will go after a week or two.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks. 

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them. Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can contact for information if you need to. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

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

If no results come back

Occasionally the first sample does not contain enough cells to make a definite diagnosis and you may need to have the test again.

Sometimes a surgical biopsy is needed. This could be because:

  • the needle biopsy could not be done for some reason
  • a second needle biopsy did not get enough cells to make a diagnosis but your specialist still thinks that there is a problem
  • it was difficult for the pathologist to be sure about the results of your needle biopsy (it can be particularly difficult to accurately judge thyroid cells)

You usually have a surgical biopsy under general anaesthetic. The doctor makes a small cut with a scalpel into the skin near the thyroid gland and removes a very small piece of thyroid tissue. You may have 1 or 2 stitches, or steri-strips, to close the wound in your neck.

Possible risks

A needle biopsy is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems afterwards.

Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a needle biopsy outweigh these possible risks.

Bleeding

It’s rare to have any bleeding after your needle biopsy. Your doctor or nurse will give you advice on what to do if you have bleeding.

Swelling

Some people have swelling after the test but this is uncommon. Let your doctor know if the area is swollen or very painful.

Last reviewed: 
03 May 2018
  • Cancer and its management (6th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Guidelines for the Mangement of Thyroid Cancer (3rd edition)

    The British Thyroid Association 

    Clinical Endocrinology Volume 81 Supplement 1 July 2014

Information and help