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What is aspiration?

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Aspiration is the use of suction to remove fluid or other tissues from the body to test them for diseases and disorders. An aspiration can diagnose cancer, cysts, meningitis, abdominal infection, and complications of pregnancy. Your doctor may also use aspiration as a treatment to remove excessive or infected fluid in a joint or body cavity, such as the abdomen. 

Aspiration can be done in almost any body area or organ. It generally involves using a needle and syringe to withdraw the fluid or cells. 

Aspiration is only one method used to diagnose or treat some diseases and conditions. You may have less invasive testing or treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all of your choices before having an aspiration.

Types of aspiration

Common types of aspiration include:

  • Abdominal tap (abdominal paracentesis) is the removal of fluid from the space around the abdomen. An abdominal tap can find the reason for fluid buildup (ascites) and drain excessive fluid. An abdominal tap can also diagnose infection (peritonitis) and bleeding due to trauma.
  • Amniocentesis is the removal of amniotic fluid from a pregnant uterus. It can diagnose certain fetal or uterine conditions. These include blood type incompatibility between the fetus and mother, infections, genetic abnormalities, and a low or excessive amount of amniotic fluid. It can also determine if a baby’s lungs are developed enough for birth.
  • Arthrocentesis is the removal of synovial fluid from a joint. It can determine the cause of swelling (effusion). Arthrocentesis may also treat relieve joint pain by injecting medications or removing excessive or infected fluid from a joint.
  • Aspiration of a lump, cyst, tumor or mass can be performed in most organs and body areas to test for infection, cancer, or other problems. Examples include the breast, liver, neck or pancreas. Drainage of the fluid from a cyst is a common example of aspiration treatment.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy is the removal of bone marrow from the inside of a bone. It can test the production of healthy red blood cells. It may be ordered to help diagnose leukemia and other cancers and evaluate cancer treatment. Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy can also diagnose certain chromosomal abnormalities and the cause of low blood counts or fever.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is the removal of fluid from the spine. It can test for infections and inflammatory diseases of the spine and nervous system. Lumbar puncture can also be used to inject certain medications, such as antibiotics and chemotherapy.
  • Thoracentesis (pleural tap) is the removal of fluid from the space around the lungs. It is used to find the reason for fluid buildup in this area (pleural effusion). It can drain excessive fluid to make breathing easier. Thoracentesis can also diagnose an infection in the lung space (empyema).

Other procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may perform other procedures in addition to aspiration. These include:

  • Medication injection, which involves injecting medication, such as an anesthetic or a steroid, into the aspirated area, often a joint. This can help relieve pain or swelling and inflammation.
  • Tissue biopsy, which involves testing the removed fluid or other tissues for infection, malignancy (cancer), and other disease.
Medical Reviewers: Daphne E. Hemmings, MD, MPH Last Review Date: Jul 4, 2013

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View Sources

Medical References

Amniocentesis. American Pregnancy Association. http://americanpregnancy.org/prenataltesting/amniocentesis.html. Accessed April 19, 2013.
Bone Marrow Aspiration and Biopsy. Lab Tests Online. http://labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/bone-marrow/tab/test. Accessed April 19, 2013.
Arthrocentesis. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. http://www.mskcc.org/patient_education/_assets/downloads-english/675.pdf. Accessed April 19, 2013.
Evaluating postoperative fever: A focused approach. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. http://ccjm.org/content/73/Suppl_1/S62.full.pdf. Accessed April 19, 2013.
Knee Joint Aspiration and Injection. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/1015/p1497.html. Accessed April 19, 2013.
Lumbar Puncture. The New England Journal of Medicine. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMvcm054952. Accessed April 19, 2013.
Paracentesis. The New England Journal of Medicine. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMvcm062234. Accessed April 19, 2013.
What is Thoracentesis? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/thor/thor_whatis.html. Accessed April 19, 2013.

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