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Pleural biopsy

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

Many diseases may cause an accumulation of fluid in the pleural space. Pleural effusion is a major diagnostic problem, since the pleural cavity is an inner cavity with no direct access.1

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What is pleural biopsy?

Pleural biopsy is carried out where pleural fluid aspiration (thoracocentesis) and other investigations have not revealed the cause of a pleural effusion. Biopsies taken from a random area of pleura have a relatively low diagnostic yield.

There are 3 types of pleural biopsy:

  • Needle biopsy (most common method): using local anaesthetic, and ultrasound/CT to guide the biopsy needle.

  • Thoracoscopic biopsy: using general or local anaesthesia); an endoscope is used to visualise the pleura and take a biopsy.

  • Open biopsy: under general anaesthesia.

The yield was increased by taking multiple samples of pleura and/or using CT-guided cutting-needle biopsy to detect specific abnormal areas, particularly for malignancy.2 3

Closed blind pleural biopsy

Closed blind pleural biopsy is now not recommended because the yield is much better with image-guided pleural biopsy or thoracoscopy.4


Exudative pleural effusion with uncertain diagnosis after thoracocentesis and pleural fluid analysis.

  • Suspected pleural malignancy including metastatic lung cancer, mesothelioma, leukaemia, lymphoma. (If mesothelioma is the suspected diagnosis, it may be better to use open or thoracoscopic biopsy.)

  • Suspected tuberculous pleural effusion - pleural biopsy is the only reliable method of diagnosing this condition due to low yield of pleural fluid staining/culture.5

  • Sarcoidosis - with relevant clinical features and associated biochemistry, the presence of non-caseating granulomata with negative pleural tissue culture can suggest/confirm this diagnosis.

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) - the use of immunofluorescent staining can diagnose de novo or drug-induced lupus.

It is not necessary to take more than one sample for suspected tuberculosis (TB). When more are taken this is done by positioning a needle at 3, 6, 7 and 9 o'clock.3 Such multiple samples are now not recommended.4

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  • Dry tap on insertion of needle/low volume pleural effusion.

  • Underlying empyema.

  • Significant coagulopathy/uncorrected anticoagulation (anticoagulated patients should come off warfarin and receive heparin, discontinued for a few hours either side of biopsy).

  • Very anxious/uncooperative subject.

Post-procedure care

  • Give simple analgesia for any pain and examine the chest to ensure there is no evidence of pneumothorax.

  • Post-procedure CXR may be used if there is reason to suspect a pneumothorax or other complication. Some recommend routine use of CXR after the procedure.

  • Advise the patient to seek medical advice if any severe pain, dyspnoea or bleeding.

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Analysis of biopsy

Send for histology, acid-fast bacillus (AFB) and fungal cultures and consider sending a sample for immunofluorescence if there is suspicion of SLE. Electron microscopy may be used if there is a possible diagnosis of mesothelioma.

Possible complications

  • Haemorrhage with haemothorax occurs very rarely but poor technique may complicate damage to the neurovascular bundle. Patients with thrombocytopenia or renal failure are particularly at risk of haemorrhage.

  • Empyema due to subsequent infection is possible but rare.

  • Pneumothorax may happen if the needle is inserted too deeply, puncturing the lung. It is more likely if a small effusion is present. Usually it self-corrects without the need for a chest drain. However, such cases should be carefully monitored. Air can enter the pleural cavity during introduction/withdrawal of a needle, but this is rarely significant. Typically, it may be noticed if the needle is withdrawn during inspiration and the patient notices sudden pain. Small amounts of air often enter during the procedure, causing a 'slurping' or 'sucking' sound. This is not usually problematic and spontaneously resorbs.

  • Tumour seeding may occur but doesn't usually affect the outcome (because any lung tumour is already metastatic if it involves pleura). However, it occurs relatively commonly with mesothelioma and can be a distressing and painful complication. Again, if mesothelioma is the suspected diagnosis, it may be better to use open or thoracoscopic biopsy.

  • Extravasation of pleural fluid can occur through the incision and cause wetting of the dressing or spilling of fluid. Patients need to know that this may occur and that they may have to change their dressing if it is wet. Occasionally fluid can track through tissue planes, causing skin swelling over the chest, abdominal wall and genitalia (particularly if there is a very large effusion under pressure). Drawing off of effusion fluid after biopsy may be worthwhile for such large effusions, to prevent or ameliorate this complication.

Further reading and references

  1. Froudarakis ME; Diagnostic work-up of pleural effusions. Respiration. 2008; 75(1):4-13. Epub 2008 Jan 9. Review. PMID: 18185024
  2. Maskell NA, Gleeson FV, Davies RJ; Standard pleural biopsy versus CT-guided cutting-needle biopsy for diagnosis of malignant disease in pleural effusions: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2003 Apr 19;361(9366):1326-30.
  3. Jimenez D, Perez-Rodriguez E, Diaz G, et al; Determining the optimal number of specimens to obtain with needle biopsy of the pleura. Respir Med. 2002 Jan;96(1):14-7.
  4. Rahman NM, Davies RJ, Gleeson FV; Investigating suspected malignant pleural effusion. BMJ. 2007 Jan 27;334(7586):206-7.
  5. Jimenez D, Diaz G, Perez-Rodriguez E; Diagnosis of pleural tuberculosis. Chest. 2002 Mar;121(3):1005.

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The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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