Liver biopsy provides histologic information about liver structure and evidence of liver injury (type and degree, any fibrosis); this information can be essential not only to diagnosis but also to staging, prognosis, and management. Although only a small core of tissue is obtained, it is usually representative, even for focal lesions.
Liver biopsy is usually done percutaneously at the bedside or with ultrasound guidance. Ultrasound guidance is preferred because its complication rate is slightly lower and it provides opportunity to visualize the liver and target focal lesions.
Generally, biopsy is indicated for suspected liver abnormalities that are not identified by less invasive methods or that require histopathology for staging (see Table 2: Testing for Hepatic and Biliary Disorders: Indications for Liver Biopsy*). Biopsy is especially valuable for detecting TB or other granulomatous infiltrations and for clarifying graft problems (ischemic injury, rejection, biliary tract disorders, viral hepatitis) after liver transplantation. Serial biopsies, commonly done over years, may be necessary to monitor disease progression.
Gross examination and histopathology are often definitive. Cytology (fine-needle aspiration), frozen section, and culture may be useful for selected patients. Metal content (eg, copper in suspected Wilson's disease, iron in hemochromatosis) can be measured in the biopsy specimen.
Limitations of liver biopsy include
Absolute contraindications to liver biopsy include
Relative contraindications include profound anemia, peritonitis, marked ascites, high-grade biliary obstruction, and a subphrenic or right pleural infection or effusion. Nonetheless, percutaneous liver biopsy is sufficiently safe to be done on an outpatient basis. Mortality is 0.01%. Major complications (eg, intra-abdominal hemorrhage, bile peritonitis, lacerated liver) develop in about 2% of patients. Complications usually become evident within 3 to 4 h—the recommended period for monitoring patients.
Transjugular venous biopsy of the liver is more invasive than the percutaneous route; it is reserved for patients with a severe coagulopathy. The procedure involves cannulating the right internal jugular vein and passing a catheter through the inferior vena cava into the hepatic vein. A fine needle is then advanced through the hepatic vein into the liver. Biopsy is successful in > 95% of patients. Complication rate is low; 0.2% bleed from puncture of the liver capsule.
Occasionally, liver biopsy is done during surgery (eg, laparoscopy); a larger, more targeted tissue sample can then be obtained.
Last full review/revision June 2009 by Eldon A. Shaffer, MD
Content last modified February 2012