What is an ovarian cyst?
An ovarian cyst is a sac filled with fluid or a semisolid material that forms on or within one of the ovaries. The ovaries are small organs in the pelvis that make female hormones and hold egg cells.
There are different types of cysts, many of which are normal and harmless (benign). Functional cysts, which are not disease-related, occur as a result of ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary). Functional cysts generally shrink over time, usually within 60 days, without specific treatment.
Functional ovarian cysts, which are relatively common, should not be confused with other types of cysts that are disease-related. Conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome and ovarian cancer also involve growths on the ovaries. Tell your healthcare provider if you have any of the symptoms listed in the symptoms section. He or she can determine the type of cyst you have.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes an ovarian cyst?
The exact cause of ovarian cysts is not known.
What are the symptoms of an ovarian cyst?
Some smaller cysts cause no symptoms. In these cases, you may not even know you have a cyst. Larger cysts may cause the following symptoms:
- Pelvic pain or a dull ache in your back.
- A feeling of fullness (bloating) in your lower belly.
- Pain during intercourse.
- Painful periods.
Some prolonged symptoms may be associated with a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome. This is a condition that causes irregular periods and other hormone-related problems, including obesity and infertility. Other symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome include hirsutism (increased growth of body hair) and difficulty losing weight.
What are the complications of an ovarian cyst?
If a cyst breaks open, it can cause severe pain and swelling in the abdomen. Often, the cyst reabsorbs on its own.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is an ovarian cyst diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will first rule out pregnancy as the cause of your symptoms. He or she then may use the following tests to diagnose an ovarian cyst:
- A pelvic exam: During this exam, the doctor uses an instrument to widen the vagina, which allows the doctor to examine the vagina, cervix and uterus. The doctor also feels the reproductive organs for any lumps or changes.
- Blood tests: These tests are used to measure the levels of certain hormones in the blood.
- Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to create images of the body's internal organs. It can be used to detect cysts on the ovaries.
- Laparoscopy: This is a procedure, performed in an operating room, in which the doctor inserts a small device through an incision (cut) in the abdomen. He or she views the reproductive organs and pelvic cavity using the device. If a cyst is diagnosed at this time, it can be removed.
Management and Treatment
How is an ovarian cyst treated?
Functional ovarian cysts generally go away without treatment. Your healthcare provider may give you medications containing hormones (such as birth control pills) to stop ovulation and prevent future cysts from forming. If you do not ovulate, you will not form functional cysts. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove a cyst.
What types of surgery are used to treat ovarian cysts?
The type of surgery used depends on the size of the cyst and how it appears on the ultrasound. The different procedures used include:
- Laparoscopy: This is a procedure in which the doctor inserts a small device through a small incision in the abdomen. He or she views the reproductive organs and pelvic cavity using the device. The doctor can remove the cyst through tiny incisions.
- Laparotomy: This procedure uses a bigger incision to remove the cyst. The cyst will be tested for cancer. If it is cancer, the doctor may need to remove one or both ovaries, the uterus, a fold of fatty tissue called the omentum and some lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures found throughout the body that produce and store infection-fighting cells, but may contain cancer cells.
Can ovarian cysts be prevented?
Taking medications that contain hormones (such as birth control pills) will stop ovulation. However, many women taking low-dose oral contraceptives may still ovulate. Although there has been no study that shows that oral contraceptive pills reduce the formation of the ovarian cysts, many physicians still do prescribe this regimen.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call your healthcare provider if any of the following occur:
- Your menstrual periods are late, irregular, or painful.
- Your abdominal pain doesn't go away.
- Your abdomen becomes enlarged or swollen.
- You have trouble urinating or emptying your bladder completely.
- You have pain during intercourse.
- You have feelings of fullness (bloating), pressure, or discomfort in your abdomen.
- You lose weight for no apparent reason.
- You feel generally ill.