Catherine Spader, RN

What is aspiration?

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

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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.

Why is aspiration performed? 

Your doctor may recommend an aspiration to diagnose and possibly treat the following diseases and conditions:

  • Abdominal conditions, such as abdominal trauma, abdominal infection (peritonitis), and cancer or liver disease that leads to ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen)

  • Bone marrow conditions, such as leukemia and metastasis (spread) of a variety of cancers, certain chromosomal abnormalities, and low blood count or fever that has not been diagnosed with less invasive testing

  • Brain and spinal cord conditions, such as a meningitis, multiple sclerosis, and cancer 

  • Joint conditions, such as arthritis, gout, joint injury, inflammation or infection of a joint, and joint effusion (accumulation of fluid in the joint)

  • Lumps, cysts, tumors or masses. Aspiration is used to diagnose and possibly treat these conditions.

  • Lung conditions, such as fluid buildup in the space around the lungs (pleural effusion) and infection in the lung space (empyema)

  • Pregnancy and fetal conditions, such as fetal or uterine infection, genetic abnormalities, and a low amount of amniotic fluid. Other conditions include fetal anemia due to Rh incompatibility (incompatibility of the mother and baby’s blood types) or to determine if a baby’s lungs are developed enough for premature delivery.

Ask your doctor about all of your testing or treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on an aspiration.