A brain biopsy is a surgery that removes a small piece of brain tissue for testing. The tissue may be removed by one of the following ways:
- Stereotactic biopsy—A computer is used to help locate where the biopsy will be taken, so only a small hole will be needed.
- Burr hole—A small hole is made in the skull over the biopsy area.
- Craniotomy—A piece of skull is cut out and then put back in after the biopsy is taken.
Reasons for Procedure
Doctors use brain biopsies to make a diagnosis so that treatment can be started. Some conditions that are diagnosed with this surgery include:
Complications are rare, but no procedure is completely free of risk. If you are planning to have a brain biopsy, your doctor will review a list of possible complications, which may include:
- Brain swelling
Damage to brain which may cause:
- Changes in memory, behavior, thinking, or speech
- Vision problems
- Problems with balance
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Reaction to the anesthesia (eg, light-headedness, low blood pressure, wheezing)
- Blood clots
Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:
Be sure to discuss these risks with your doctor before your biopsy.
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
At your appointment before your surgery, you can expect:
- A neurological exam—to find out how your nerves work, your mental status, and your motor and sensory abilities
of the brain—images of your body that will help your doctor plan the surgery
Time set aside for questions:
- Questions from your doctor—Do you have any new symptoms? What kind of help do you have at home?
- Questions you should ask your doctor—What will my recovery be like? How soon will I know the biopsy results? When will I be able to return to work?
- Arrange for a ride home from the hospital.
- You will be asked to fast for 8-12 hours before surgery. Ask your doctor if you should take your morning medicines with a sip of water before your surgery.
Talk to your doctor about your medicines. You may be asked to stop taking some medicines up to one week before the procedure, such as:
Anti-inflammatory drugs (eg,
Blood thinners, like
You may receive:
- Local anesthesia and light sedation (for stereotactic biopsies)—blocks just the area where surgery is taking place; light sedation makes you sleepy during surgery
(for craniotomies or burr holes)—blocks pain and keeps you asleep during surgery; given through an IV (needle) in your hand or arm
Description of the Procedure
Once you are anesthetized and no longer feel any pain, an area of your head will be shaved and washed with an antiseptic.
Stereotactic Brain Biopsy
The skin on your scalp will be numbed. Next, a device that holds your head still will be placed on your head. (Sometimes this is not done). Your doctor will make a small incision and a small hole in your skull. A thin needle will be inserted using a computer. The computer will help guide the needle to the exact spot. Using the needle, your doctor will remove tissue from your brain. A dressing will then be applied.
Your doctor will drill a hole into part of your scull. He will insert a needle into your brain to remove tissue. A CT or MRI scan might be used to help find the biopsy site. Staples or sutures may be used to close the incision. A dressing will then be applied.
Your doctor will make an incision in your scalp. Part of the skull will then be removed. The sheets that cover your brain will be opened. Your doctor will remove a small sample of brain tissue. The skull piece will be returned to its spot. Your doctor will use staples or stitches to close the area. A dressing will be wrapped around your head.
Immediately After Procedure
After the surgery, you will be taken to the recovery room for observation. If you had general anesthesia, your breathing tube will likely be removed. Your mental status, temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and respirations will be checked. Once you are stable, you will be transferred to a hospital room or be allowed to go home.
How Long Will It Take?
One to several hours (depending on the type of biopsy)
How Much Will It Hurt?
You will not feel pain during surgery. After surgery, you will be given pain medicine.
Average Hospital Stay
Depending on the type of biopsy, you may stay in the hospital for 1-2 days or go home the same day. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if complications arise.
At the Hospital
Your brain function will be checked frequently. This will include:
- Pupil reactions
- Mental status
You may receive:
- Medicine to prevent seizures
- Antibiotics to prevent bacterial infection
- The dressing will be removed in 24-48 hours. A lighter dressing will be place on your head.
While in the hospital, you may be asked to:
- Try not to strain or hold your breath. This can increase pressure on your brain.
Get out of bed and walk. This will help to prevent problems, like blood clots and
When you are at home, do the following for a smooth recovery:
- Get help from family and friends as you recover.
- Keep your incision clean and dry. Monitor it for redness or drainage.
- Ask your doctor about when it is safe to shower, bathe, or soak in water.
Get enough rest. Also, eat a
to help your body recover.
Call Your Doctor
After you leave the hospital, contact your doctor if any of the following occurs:
- Any changes in physical ability—balance, strength, or movement
- Any changes in mental status—level of consciousness, memory, thinking, or responsiveness
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, a lot of bleeding, or any discharge from the incision site
- Headache that does not go away
- Changes in vision
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Nausea and/or vomiting that you cannot control with the medicines you were given, or that continue for more than two days after leaving the hospital
- Pain that you cannot control with the medicines you have been given
- Trouble controlling your bladder and/or bowels
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if any of the following occurs:
- New seizures
- Shortness of breath, or chest pain
- Loss of consciousness
In case of an emergency, call for medical help right away.
American Brain Tumor Association
National Brain Tumor Foundation
Brain Tumor Foundation of Canada
Canadian Cancer Society
About stereotactic brain biopsy. University of Florida Department of Neurosurgery website. Available at:
. Accessed September 17, 2009.
The essential guide to brain tumors. National Brain Tumor Foundation website. Available at:
. Accessed September 15, 2009.
Your surgery guide, information about your craniotomy or biopsy for a brain tumor. Cedars Sinai Medical Center website. Available at:
. Accessed September 17, 2009.
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