10 Facts You Should Know About Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts are common and largely harmless. But in some cases, they may cause problems or indicate other conditions.

A healthcare provider explaining results to a patient.
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Typically, the menstrual cycle functions like a well-regulated system.

Roughly every month, your ovaries prepare to ovulate one egg. Hormones stimulate ovarian follicles, or sacs containing immature eggs. But only one of those follicles fully matures. It grows bigger and bigger until it eventually bursts and releases the egg.

But there are hiccups in every organized system. And the menstrual cycle is no exception. For example, the follicle may not burst, instead trapping the egg cell. That is often the scenario that causes ovarian cysts.

Although they are largely harmless, some cysts may cause pelvic pain and spotting. Others are also indicators of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or ovarian cancer. Here are 10 facts you need to know about ovarian cysts—including why they develop and how to treat them.

01 of 10

Cysts Commonly Form During Ovulation

In actuality, ovarian cysts are quite common and rarely cause problems, per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.

"Your body basically sets you up to get ovarian cysts," said Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

In most cases, unreleased eggs cause the follicle to inflate and develop into a cyst. Or, you may develop a corpus luteum cyst, which is a cavity that forms after the follicle ruptures and releases the egg.

Sometimes, those types of cysts bleed, causing pelvic pain and spotting between periods. They usually disappear within a few weeks and are fairly small (often about one to two millimeters). But it's possible to have a large cyst that measures as big as 10 millimeters.

02 of 10

There Are Other Types of Ovarian Cysts

Although they are less common than follicle and corpus luteum cysts, according to the Office on Women's Health, other types of ovarian cysts include dermoid cysts, endometriomas, and cystadenomas.

Dermoid cysts are made up of germ cells, which are the cells that give rise to immature eggs. They are not common, noted Dr. Minkin, but they can grow larger than other cysts, or up to four inches.

And since dermoid cysts contain the genetic material necessary for human life, you can even find hair and teeth inside of them, Dr. Minkin explained. Normally, they don't cause problems, but your healthcare provider may surgically remove dermoid cysts that are especially large.

Endometriomas develop due to endometriosis. That is a condition that causes the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus—or the endometrium—to grow outside of the uterus. And cystadenomas are benign fluid-filled sacs.

03 of 10

They Usually Do Not Cause Symptoms

Per the Office on Women's Health, ovarian cysts are harmless. They usually do not cause symptoms or changes to your normal menstrual cycle.

In rare cases, you may notice fever, nausea, and vomiting. Those are signs that you may have an infection. If you experience severe symptoms, you should consult a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Another scenario that worries healthcare providers, explained Dr. Minkin, occurs when a cyst causes the ovary to "twist." That is also known as adnexal torsion, which cuts off the blood supply to the ovary and causes permanent damage.

Although adnexal torsion is uncommon, it is a medical emergency. If you feel sudden pain in your abdomen and become nauseous, you should immediately consult your healthcare provider.

04 of 10

Your Gynecologist Can Diagnose Ovarian Cysts

Your gynecologist may discover ovarian cysts during a routine check-up. Healthcare providers typically locate large cysts while performing a pelvic exam or spot them during a vaginal ultrasound.

But if you experience pelvic pain, or other symptoms of ovarian cysts, you may seek out an additional visit outside of your yearly visit to the gynecologist.

"Most of the ovarian cysts I find [in my practice] are from patients who tell me they're experiencing pain," noted Dr. Minkin.

05 of 10

An Ultrasound Can Take a Closer Look Inside of Your Ovaries

Often, healthcare providers confirm ovarian cysts after conducting a vaginal ultrasound.

According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, a thin device, covered in gel and inserted into the vagina, allows the healthcare provider to view your internal reproductive organs. The device creates sound waves that translate into images. Cysts may visually appear as tiny black dots on those images.

After confirming the presence of cysts, your gynecologist decides whether to surgically remove them. If they aren't causing problems, they will simply monitor them for any changes.

"We try to avoid operating on someone unless we have to," said Dr. Minkin.

06 of 10

Surgery Isn't Always Necessary

One instance in which your gynecologist may surgically remove ovarian cysts is if you are at risk for adnexal torsion, explained Dr. Minkin.

Your healthcare provider might also consider surgery if the cyst does not go away after three menstrual cycles; it grows larger than four inches; or they suspect that the mass could be cancerous.

Per the National Library of Medicine, if you need surgery, you will likely undergo one of two common procedures: laparoscopy or laparotomy. Both procedures involve a surgeon making an incision in the abdominal region to remove the cysts.

07 of 10

The Pill May Prevent Ovarian Cysts

If you're not pregnant, the birth control pill may help prevent ovarian cysts.

"They suppress ovulation," explained Dr. Minkin. Therefore, the birth control pill also suppresses follicle cysts that may develop during ovulation.

That said, the birth control pill will not help an existing cyst go away faster than normal, according to a study published in 2014 in the journal Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

In the past, some doctors recommended the birth control pill as a treatment option for cysts. However, the researchers discovered a lack of scientific evidence to support that advice. Instead, the researcher supported careful monitoring of cysts.

08 of 10

Some Cysts Are a Symptom of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

As the name implies, people who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) develop several ovarian cysts.

But what differentiates PCOS from other types of cysts is a hormonal imbalance. In cases of PCOS, cysts produce androgen, a hormone that supports the development of typical male characteristics. So, people who have PCOS may notice excess hair growth, as well as acne and weight gain.

Per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, other symptoms of PCOS include anovulation, irregular periods, and infertility.

09 of 10

They Can Show Up After Menopause

Most people who develop ovarian cysts are pre-menopausal. However, it's possible to develop cysts as you age, especially during your early post-menopausal years.

In a study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers concluded that cysts are fairly common post-menopause.

After looking at the sonograms of nearly 16,000 cisgender women aged older than 55 years, researchers found cysts among 14% of them. About one-third of those cysts were benign and disappeared during the following year.

10 of 10

Some Ovarian Cysts May Be Cancerous

Although most are benign, there is a small chance that an ovarian cyst is indicative of ovarian cancer.

Like many other cancers, your risk increases as you age, noted Dr. Minkin. About half of people who develop ovarian cancer are older than 63 years, according to the American Cancer Society. It is the fifth most cause of cancer-related deaths among cisgender women.

If your healthcare provider is determining whether a cyst is cancerous, they will conduct a vaginal ultrasound. That test will not definitively prove that the mass is cancerous, but it can help your gynecologist determine whether it's filled with fluid. A solid mass is more indicative of cancer than a fluid-filled one.

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