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Ovarian cysts

Ovarian cysts are common and not always a cause for concern.

The cyst is a sac of fluid that develops on an ovary.

Ovarian cysts may not cause any pain or symptoms. However, larger cysts, or ruptured cysts can be painful and uncomfortable.

There are several different types of ovarian cyst. The most common is a functional cyst, which forms during ovulation. That formation happens when either the egg is not released from the ovary as it should be, or the sac (follicle) in which the egg forms does not dissolve after the egg is released.

Other types of cysts include:

  • Polycystic ovaries. In polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the follicles in which the eggs normally mature fail to open and cysts form.
  • Endometriomas. In women with endometriosis, tissue from the lining of the uterus grows in other areas of the body. This includes the ovaries. Endometriosis can be very painful and can affect fertility.
  • Cystadenomas. These cysts form from cells on the surface of the ovary. They are often fluid-filled.
  • Dermoid cysts. This type of cyst contains tissue similar to that in other parts of the body. That includes skin, hair, and teeth.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cysts?

Often, ovarian cysts don’t cause any symptoms. You may not realise you have one until you visit your GP and have a pelvic examination for an unrelated problem. These cysts can, however, cause problems if they twist, bleed, rupture or grow very large.

If you have any of the symptoms below it’s important to have them checked out. That’s because they can also be symptoms of ovarian tumours. Ovarian cancer often spreads before it is detected.

Symptoms of ovarian cysts include:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Problems emptying bowels
  • Frequent urination
  • Indigestion, fullness and bloating
  • Tiredness

How do doctors diagnose ovarian cysts?

Your doctor may discover a mass while carrying out a pelvic examination. You may then be referred for an ultrasound scan, or directly to a gynaecologist for further examination. Most ovarian growths are benign. But a small number can be cancerous. That’s why it’s important to have any growths checked. Postmenopausal women in particular should get examined.

Tests for ovarian cysts include:

  • Ultrasound. This test uses sound waves to create an image of the ovaries. The image helps the doctor determine the size and location of the cyst or tumour.
  • CA-125. If the doctor thinks the growth may be cancerous, a blood test might be taken to look for a protein called CA-125. Levels of this protein tend to be higher in some -- but not all -- women with ovarian cancer. 

How are ovarian cysts treated?

Most ovarian cysts are not cancerous and will go away on their own. If you don’t have any troublesome symptoms, especially if you haven’t yet gone through the menopause, your doctor may advocate “watchful waiting.” The doctor won’t treat you, but will check you every few months to see if there has been any change in the cyst.

Birth control pills may relieve the pain from ovarian cysts. They prevent ovulation, which reduces the formation of new cysts.

Surgery is an option if the cyst doesn’t go away, grows, or causes you pain. There are two types of surgery:

  • Laparoscopy uses a very small incision and a tiny, illuminated telescope-like instrument. The instrument is inserted into the abdomen to remove the cyst. This technique works for smaller cysts
  • Laparotomy involves a bigger incision in the stomach. Doctors prefer this technique for larger cysts and ovarian tumours.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on June 09, 2014

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