The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) estimates that around 60-70 million Americans suffer from some form of digestive disease. This can include minor problems like constipation or much more serious ones like stomach cancer. Unfortunately, because the symptoms of digestive problems are often very similar to each other, it can be difficult to diagnose a condition without the expertise of a gastroenterologist. In some cases, the circumstances and symptoms may even require a more involved test like a stomach biopsy.

What Is a Stomach Biopsy?

A stomach biopsy, also known as a gastric tissue biopsy, refers to a procedure in which a sample of stomach tissue is removed, usually from the inner lining of the stomach. Once safely removed, the sample is sent to a laboratory where it is tested. The testing process is called a microbial culture and involves placing the tissue sample in a culture medium that promotes microbial growth. In this controlled laboratory setting, any microorganisms that are present can be observed and evaluated as the source of the gastrointestinal problem in question.

Reasons to Perform a Stomach Biopsy

Most people don’t even think about their digestive health until they start to experience symptoms that become challenging or reduce their quality of life. Indeed, almost everyone has experienced a mild gastrointestinal symptom like diarrhea or nausea or constipation at various points throughout life. Most of the time, symptoms like these pop up and then go away on their own with no treatment at all or with home remedies or over-the-counter medication.

Sometimes, though, the symptoms become more severe and really start to make you uncomfortable or worried about your health. You might even notice a chronic problem develop over time. In these cases it’s wise to seek out advice from a gastroenterologist. If the symptoms warrant it, the doctor may end up ordering a stomach biopsy. The following are some symptoms that might be present and need a biopsy to investigate further:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort
  • unexplained weight loss
  • changes to bowel habits
  • black or tarry stools
  • reduced appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • bloating or swelling

How Is a Gastric Tissue Biopsy Performed?

It’s important to note that a gastric tissue biopsy isn’t usually the first step in the process of diagnosing a patient. In most cases a physical exam and a review of the relevant symptoms can help the doctor make preliminary determinations about the condition. Even before a biopsy, however, a gastroenterologist will often look to imaging tests like an upper endoscopy (technically known as an esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD) or an endoscopic ultrasound to get more information. If the problem seems to be lower in the digestive tract, a colonoscopy is also possible.

In fact, it’s often only after an upper GI endoscopy has been ordered and is in progress that a doctor will discover that a biopsy might be necessary. The endoscope is a long, flexible tube with a camera mounted on the end, and it is inserted through the mouth and gently pushed down the esophagus. Along the way, the doctor can see live images of the digestive tract and look for abnormalities that might indicate a problem. The endoscope can reach all the way through the stomach into the first part of the small intestine.

If, while viewing the inside of the stomach, a growth or lesion or anything out of the ordinary is spotted, the doctor can choose to take a tissue sample. In addition to the camera and light, the endoscope has a small instrument on the end that can actually cut and remove small pieces of tissue. Once the tissue is extracted, it is stored in a petri dish and is sent to the lab for testing. An upper GI endoscopy can be used in this way to detect pathogens, foreign objects, or even growths that may be cancerous.

What Can a Stomach Biopsy Reveal?

By the time a doctor has examined you and ordered an endoscopy and possible stomach biopsy, that means there have already been symptoms of some digestive disease that needs treatment. A core reason for doing the biopsy, in fact, is to gather more data to clarify what the problem might be. Below are some of the possible conditions that a gastric tissue biopsy might reveal:

  • Ulcers: A stomach ulcer (or peptic ulcer) is one of the most common reasons to do a biopsy. An ulcer is essentially a break or opening in the lining of the stomach that is most often due to an infection by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Once the bacteria is present in sufficient strength, it grows and begins to damage the stomach lining.
  • Infection: Apart from H. pylori, there are other bacterial, viral, and fungal infections that can thrive in the stomach and cause symptoms; examples include Salmonella, E. coli, or parasites like Giardia.
  • Gastritis: Gastritis is the term for any inflammation of the stomach lining. There may or may not be symptoms, but gastritis can also lead to other gastrointestinal complications.
  • Stomach cancer: A gastric tissue biopsy is a standard procedure any time cancerous cells are suspected in the gastrointestinal tract. During an upper endoscopy, doctors look for polyps or tumors or other abnormal growths. If the growth is small enough, it might be completely removed on the spot; otherwise a small sample is taken to verify that the cells are cancerous.
  • Esophagitis: While not specifically located in the stomach, an inflammation of the esophagus known as esophagitis can be related to other problems in the stomach.

Cary Gastro: Experts in Gastroenterology

For probably everyone, the prospect of needing a stomach biopsy is undoubtedly intimidating and a little scary. If you’ve been having symptoms related to your digestive system and you don’t know what’s causing them, it’s better to get checked out sooner rather than later, especially because some gastrointestinal conditions don’t present with symptoms until a later stage. If you’d like to talk with a gastroenterologist about your symptoms and find out about getting an examination or endoscopy, please contact us at Cary Gastro to request an appointment. We are passionate about providing excellent digestive health care so that you can have peace of mind and the highest possible quality of life.