What is Fine Needle Aspiration?

D. Jeffress

Fine needle aspiration is a clinical procedure performed to look for signs of cancer, infection, and other types of disease in suspicious masses of body tissue. A long, thin needle is inserted into a suspected tumor, and a tiny sample of fluid and tissue are extracted. Laboratory analysis of the tissue can help doctors confirm or rule out different medical conditions. In most cases, fine needle aspiration can be performed in a matter of minutes in an outpatient surgical clinic or hospital.

Fine needle biopsies are usually preferred over invasive surgical procedures due to the lowered risk of infection.
Fine needle biopsies are usually preferred over invasive surgical procedures due to the lowered risk of infection.

When an unusual mass or lump is discovered during a physical exam or diagnostic imaging scans, a doctor usually decides to arrange for fine needle aspiration. Palpable lumps in the lymph nodes of the neck, head, breast, and groin are the most common sites for aspiration tests, but a physician may decide to perform the procedure on a mass elsewhere on the body if it is near the skin and suspicious-looking. Fine needle biopsies are almost always preferred over more invasive surgical procedures since the risk of infection and other complications is much lower.

A sample collected by fine needle aspiration is transferred to a laboratory slide so it can be analyzed under a microscope.
A sample collected by fine needle aspiration is transferred to a laboratory slide so it can be analyzed under a microscope.

Before the procedure, a specialist thoroughly sterilizes the skin above the mass and marks an injection point. Most fine needle aspirations are done without anesthesia, but a doctor may decide to apply a local anesthetic if the skin is tender or the patient is nervous about the needle. The hollow needle punctures the skin and enters the center of the lump. A tiny sample of cells is drawn through the needle into a sterile syringe. The doctor then carefully removes the needle, applies pressure to the puncture wound to control any bleeding, and bandages the wound with gauze and adhesive.

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A fine needle aspiration may be performed if a lump is discovered during a physical exam of the breast.
A fine needle aspiration may be performed if a lump is discovered during a physical exam of the breast.

The sample collected by fine needle aspiration is transferred to a sterile laboratory slide so it can be analyzed under a microscope. A pathologist studies the sample to check for signs of cancer, inflammation, and infection. After a diagnosis is confirmed, a team of doctors can begin considering different treatment options.

Medical imaging offers a minimally invasive way to precisely located where a fine needle aspiration may be necessary.
Medical imaging offers a minimally invasive way to precisely located where a fine needle aspiration may be necessary.

In addition to being an important diagnostic procedure, fine needle aspiration can also be helpful in gauging the success of treatment procedures. A doctor can perform an aspiration after attempting to treat a tumor with radiation and chemotherapy, and compare the collected tissue to the sample gathered before treatment. If the new sample is cancer-free or shows signs of expiring cancer, the doctor can be sure that treatment was effective.

Fine needle biopsies are almost always preferred over invasive surgical procedures.
Fine needle biopsies are almost always preferred over invasive surgical procedures.
Palpable lumps in the lymph nodes of the groin are a common site for aspiration tests.
Palpable lumps in the lymph nodes of the groin are a common site for aspiration tests.

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Discussion Comments

Lostnfound

@Grivusangel -- Ouch. Bless your heart. My mom had a fine needle aspiration on a tumor in her breast, but they really couldn't get a good sample because it was, as the surgeon said, "gristly." It was enough that he figured out it was cancer and scheduled her for surgery. She said the place was really sore for several days. Not nearly as sore as she was when had the lumpectomy, though.

Fortunately, the margins were clean and clear, and after eight chemo treatments, she was finished and thank the Lord, has never had a recurrence.

But she said she would rather have just had the lumpectomy because at least she was asleep during the procedure!

Grivusangel

I had a fine needle aspiration biopsy done when I had a nodule on my thyroid. I didn't know they were going to do it when I went in for the round of blood work and an ultrasound, but lo and behold, they did.

The radiologist used six needles and did six passes each to get a good sample. Even though they numbed me up completely, it was very uncomfortable and I was *so* glad when he picked up that sixth needle and I knew it was nearly over. So not fun. I had a huge bruise on my neck for a couple of days. Looked like a hickey. I dd my best to minimize the look with concealer.

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