What are ovarian cysts?
The ovaries are
part of the female reproductive system. They’re located in the lower abdomen on
both sides of the uterus. Women have two ovaries that produce eggs, as well as
the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Sometimes, a fluid-filled sac called a cyst will develop on one of the
ovaries. Many women will develop at least one cyst during their lifetime. In
most cases, cysts are painless and cause no symptoms.
Types of ovarian cysts
There are various types of ovarian
cysts, such as dermoid cysts and endometrioma cysts. However, functional cysts are the most
common type. The two types of functional cysts include follicle and corpus
During a woman’s menstrual cycle, an
egg grows in a sac called a follicle. This sac is located inside the ovaries.
In most cases, this follicle or sac breaks open and releases an egg. But if the
follicle doesn’t break open, the fluid inside the follicle can form a cyst on
Corpus luteum cysts
Follicle sacs typically dissolve after
releasing an egg. But if the sac doesn’t dissolve and the opening of the
follicle seals, additional fluid can develop inside the sac and this
accumulation of fluid causes a corpus luteum cyst.
Other types of ovarian cysts include:
- dermoid cysts: sac-like growths on the ovaries that can contain
hair, fat, and other tissue
non-cancerous growths that can develop on the outer surface of the ovaries
- endometriomas: tissues that normally grow inside the uterus can
develop outside the uterus and attach to the ovaries, resulting in a cyst
Some women develop a condition
called polycystic ovary syndrome.
This condition means the ovaries contain a large number of small cysts. It can
cause the ovaries to enlarge, and if left untreated, polycystic ovaries can
Symptoms of an ovarian cyst
Often times, ovarian cysts do not cause
any symptoms. However, symptoms can appear as the cyst grows. Symptoms may
- abdominal bloating or swelling
- painful bowel movements
- pelvic pain before or during the menstrual cycle
- painful intercourse
- pain in the lower back or thighs
- breast tenderness
- nausea and vomiting
Severe symptoms of an ovarian cyst that
require immediate medical attention include:
- severe or sharp pelvic pain
- faintness or dizziness
- rapid breathing
These symptoms can indicate a ruptured
cyst or an ovarian torsion. Both complications can have serious consequences if
not treated early.
Ovarian cyst complications
Most ovarian cysts are benign and
naturally go away on their own without treatment. These cysts cause little, if
any, symptoms. But in a rare case, your doctor may detect a cancerous cystic
ovarian mass during a routine examination.
torsion is another rare complication of
ovarian cysts. This is when a large cyst causes an ovary to twist or move from
its original position. Blood supply to the ovary is cut off, and if not
treated, it can cause damage or death to the ovarian tissue. Although
uncommon, ovarian torsion accounts for nearly 3 percent of emergency
cysts, which are also rare, can cause intense pain and internal
bleeding. This complication increases your risk of an infection and can be
life-threatening if left untreated.
Diagnosing an ovarian cyst
Your doctor can detect an ovarian cyst
during a routine pelvic examination. They may notice swelling on one of your
ovaries and order an ultrasound test to confirm the presence of a cyst. An
ultrasound test (ultrasonography) is an imaging test that uses
high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of your internal organs.
Ultrasound tests help determine the size, location, shape, and composition
(solid or fluid filled) of a cyst.
Imaging tools used to diagnose ovarian
- CT scan: a body imaging device used to create cross-sectional
images of internal organs
- MRI: a test that uses magnetic fields to produce in-depth
images of internal organs
- Ultrasound device: an imaging device used to visualize the ovary
Because the majority of cysts disappear
after a few weeks or months, your doctor may not immediately recommend a
treatment plan. Instead, they may repeat the ultrasound test in a few weeks or
months to check your condition.
If there aren’t any changes in your
condition or if the cyst increases in size, your doctor will request additional
tests to determine other causes of your symptoms.
- pregnancy test: to make sure you’re not pregnant
- hormone level test: to check for hormone-related issues, such as too much
estrogen or progesterone
- CA-125 blood test: to screen for ovarian cancer
Treatment for an ovarian cyst
Your doctor may recommend treatment to
shrink or remove the cyst if it doesn’t go away on its own or if it grows larger.
Birth control pills
If you have recurrent ovarian cysts,
your doctor can prescribe oral contraceptives to stop ovulation and prevent the
development of new cysts. Oral contraceptives can also reduce your risk of
ovarian cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer is higher in postmenopausal women.
If your cyst is small and results from an
imaging test rule out cancer, your doctor can perform a laparoscopy to
surgically remove the cyst. The procedure involves your doctor making a tiny
incision near your navel and then inserting a small instrument into your
abdomen to remove the cyst.
If you have a large cyst, your doctor
can surgically remove the cyst through a large incision in your abdomen. They’ll
conduct an immediate biopsy, and if they determine that the cyst is cancerous, they
may perform a hysterectomy to remove your ovaries and uterus.
Ovarian cyst prevention
Ovarian cysts can’t be prevented.
However, routine gynecologic examinations can detect ovarian cysts early. Benign
ovarian cysts don’t become cancerous. However, symptoms of ovarian cancer can
mimic symptoms of an ovarian cyst. Thus, it’s important to visit your doctor
and receive a correct diagnosis. Alert your doctor to symptoms that may
indicate a problem, such as:
- changes in your menstrual cycle
- ongoing pelvic pain
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- abdominal fullness
What’s the long-term outlook?
The outlook for premenopausal women with
ovarian cysts is good. Most cysts disappear within a few months. However,
recurrent ovarian cysts can occur in premenopausal women and women with hormone
If left untreated, some cysts can
decrease fertility. This is common with endometriomas and polycystic ovary syndrome.
To improve fertility, your doctor can remove or shrink the cyst. Functional
cysts, cystadenomas, and dermoid cysts do not affect fertility.
Although some doctors take a “wait and
see” approach with ovarian cysts, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove
and examine any cyst or growth that develops on the ovaries after menopause.
This is because the risk of developing a cancerous cyst or ovarian cancer
increases after menopause. However, ovarian cysts don’t increase the risk of
ovarian cancer. Some doctors will remove a cyst if it’s larger than 5 centimeters