What Every Woman Should Know About Ovarian Cysts
What are ovarian cysts? How do you know if you have them?

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Image of woman in underwear having pain What Every Woman Should Know About Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts are common and are usually harmless. Most women do not know they have one until their doctor detects it during a routine pelvic exam.

Your ovaries are located in your lower abdomen on each side of your uterus. Each month during your childbearing years, a mature egg is released from a follicle. It then travels through the fallopian tube to your uterus. Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs. They grow inside of or on the surface of your ovary.

In rare cases, an ovarian cyst can grow very large and rupture. This can be life-threatening. It is important to know the symptoms that signal a problem.

Types of cysts
Sometimes, the follicle in an ovary will not rupture and release an egg. The follicle will keep growing and turn into a cyst. These cysts often disappear on their own within a few months and don't cause any symptoms.

When a follicle has ruptured and released an egg, it begins to produce hormones. These hormones prepare your uterus for conception. If the opening that the egg escaped through seals itself, fluid can build up and swell into a cyst. (This is called a corpus luteum cyst.) It usually disappears within a few weeks. Sometimes these cysts grow much bigger than the ovary. They bleed into themselves or twist the ovary. This is painful. If a blood-filled cyst ruptures, it will cause sudden, sharp pain. A corpus luteum cyst does not negatively affect a pregnancy.

There are other types of cysts that are much less common. They can form from cells that produce eggs or from ovarian tissue. These types, as well as cysts that form after menopause, are more of a concern because they may be cancerous.

Symptoms and treatment
Bigger cysts may cause several symptoms:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • A feeling of fullness or bloating in the abdomen
  • Difficulty urinating because of pressure on the bladder
  • Pain in the pelvis that may spread to the lower back
  • Pain during intercourse

There can be other causes for any of these symptoms, so they don't necessarily mean you have a cyst. If you have symptoms and your doctor can feel a cyst during a pelvic exam, you may need an ultrasound or a blood test. This will help your doctor decide which treatment, if any, is necessary.

Most cysts disappear on their own after a few months. Watchful waiting is often the best treatment. You may need another pelvic exam or ultrasound to find out if your cyst has grown. If it is smaller than a plum and isn't going away, it can be removed by laparoscopy. This is done by inserting a viewing instrument (a laparoscope) through a small incision in your abdomen.

Your age is an important factor when deciding on a treatment. Ovarian cancer is rare in young women, but cysts are more often cancerous after menopause. Your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the ovary.

By Barbara Kunz, PhD, Staff Writer
Created on 02/22/2007
Updated on 01/13/2010
  • Medline Plus. Ovarian cysts.
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Ovarian cysts.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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