What you can expect

By Mayo Clinic Staff

A bone marrow biopsy and aspiration can be done in a hospital, a clinic or a doctor's office. The procedures are usually done by a doctor who is a specialist in blood disorders (hematologist) or a cancer specialist (oncologist), by a nurse, or by a specially trained technologist.

The bone marrow exam typically takes about 30 minutes. If you receive intravenous (IV) sedation, extra time is needed for preparation and post-procedure care.

Before the procedure

Your health care team will check your blood pressure and heart rate. Because bone marrow aspiration and biopsy can be painful, you'll receive some form of anesthesia to keep you comfortable. For most people, local anesthesia is all that's needed. You'll be fully awake during the procedure, but the aspiration and biopsy site is numbed to reduce pain.

If you feel anxious about pain, you may be given a sedative drug through a vein (IV sedation) so that you're either completely or partially sedated during the bone marrow procedure.

The area where the doctor will insert the biopsy needle is marked and cleaned. The bone marrow fluid (aspirate) and tissue sample (biopsy) are usually collected from the top ridge of the back of a hipbone (posterior iliac crest). In some cases, aspiration can be done from the breastbone or the front of the hip near the groin. In babies and very young children, the sample may be taken from the lower leg bone, just below the knee.

You'll be asked to lie on your abdomen or side, and your body will be draped with cloth so only the exam site will be showing.

Bone marrow aspiration

The bone marrow aspiration is usually done first. The doctor makes a small incision to make it easier to insert the needle. A hollow needle is inserted through the bone and into the bone marrow.

Using a syringe attached to the needle, the doctor pulls back on the plunger to draw a sample of the liquid portion of the bone marrow into the needle. You may feel a brief sharp pain or a stinging. The aspiration takes only a few minutes. Several samples may be taken.

The health care team checks the sample to make sure it's adequate. In rare cases, a "dry tap" may occur — meaning fluid can't be withdrawn. The needle may need to be moved for another attempt.

Bone marrow biopsy

In a bone marrow biopsy, a sample of solid bone marrow tissue is taken. (A bone marrow biopsy isn't the same as a bone biopsy — a bone biopsy takes a sample of actual bone.) For a bone marrow biopsy, your doctor uses a different type of needle than is used for aspiration. The larger biopsy needle is specially designed to collect a core (cylindrical sample) of bone marrow.

After the procedure

After your bone marrow exam, pressure is applied to the area where the needle was inserted to stop the bleeding. Then a smaller bandage will be placed on the site.

If you had local anesthesia, you'll be asked to lie on your back for 10 to 15 minutes and apply pressure to the biopsy site. You can then leave and go about your day, returning to normal activity as soon as you feel up to it.

If you had IV sedation, you'll be taken to a recovery area. Because the sedative may cause impaired judgment, memory lapses or slowed response times, plan to have someone drive you home. Plan to take it easy for 24 hours.

You may feel some tenderness for a week or more after your bone marrow exam. Ask your doctor about taking a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).

Site care

Keep the bandage on and dry for 24 hours. Don't take a shower or bath, and don't swim or use a hot tub. After 24 hours, it's OK to get the aspiration and biopsy area wet.

If bleeding soaks through the bandage or doesn't stop with direct pressure, contact your health care team. Also contact your doctor if you experience:

  • A persistent fever
  • Worsening pain or discomfort
  • Swelling at the procedure site
  • Increasing redness or drainage at the procedure site

Although you can often return to your normal activities after a bone marrow exam, avoid rigorous activity or exercise for a day or two. This will help minimize bleeding and discomfort.

Dec. 13, 2011