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Ovarian Cysts: What You Need to Know

October 12, 2020
Sarah Falcone RN

Did you know that many women have ovarian cysts? Most are harmless and resolve without problems. In some cases, serious complications can occur. Here's what you need to know about this common diagnosis:

What is an Ovarian Cyst?

A cyst is a membranous sac or pocket. Cysts form in many places in the body. The term ovarian cyst refers to a cyst that has formed in or on one of the ovaries.

Women have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus in the lower abdomen. These ovaries are part of a normal reproductive system. Normally, an ovary releases an egg each month as part of a woman's menstrual cycle. This process of forming a sac-like pocket on the organ is just one type of ovarian cyst.

Types of ovarian cysts

Most ovarian cysts are small and harmless and commonly occur in regular menstrual periods. A corpus luteum cyst or a follicle cyst may form each month on the ovary when the egg is released. These are called functional cysts. These normally shrink on their own in about 1 to 3 months.

There are multiple other conditions that may cause a cyst to form. Other types of ovarian cysts include endometriomas, dermoid cysts, and cystadenomas. These are less common though. Most cause no problems and may go unnoticed.

In some cases, multiple cysts may occur at once. In polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), many small cysts are formed on the ovaries and the normal reproductive cycle may be interrupted. Women with PCOS experience hormone imbalances, which can cause irregular menstrual periods.

Problematic Cysts

According to Dr. David Howard, M.D., Ph.D., what really causes concern is "when a cyst becomes too big, above 5 cm, that's when cysts almost always are going to start causing pain and pressure symptoms." He compares a large cyst to a large piece of fruit hanging from a branch. The size and weight of the cyst can cause the blood supply of the ovary to twist. Any organ that does not get adequate blood flow could potentially die without urgent treatment.

Only about 8% of premenopausal women develop large cysts that need treatment. After menopause, these cysts are less common. Still, ovarian cysts can occur at any age. Although most are not problematic, ovarian cysts can be cancerous and could lead to ovarian cancer. It is important to talk to your physician if you think you have a cyst.

What do I Need to Know About Ovarian Cysts?

Since ovarian cysts should be checked out by a healthcare provider, you might be asking what are the symptoms?

Symptoms

As we said most cysts are asymptomatic. Many are found incidentally, on ultrasound or on exam.

If a cyst does cause symptoms, you may experience pain or pressure in the low abdomen. Pain or discomfort from an ovarian cyst could feel sharp or dull, and it could come and go. If a cyst breaks open it could cause sudden, severe pain. Also, if a large cyst breaks open it could cause heavy bleeding. If a cyst causes an ovary to twist, this is called torsion and could be serious because it decreases blood flow to the organ. This may be associated with nausea and vomiting.

It is important to talk to your physician if you are concerned about these symptoms. Your provider may do a pelvic exam to feel for a cyst on your ovary. Additionally, they may order further testing. Some tests which may help diagnose an ovarian cyst include ultrasound, pregnancy test to rule out pregnancy, hormone levels, and other blood tests.

Treatment options

There are treatment options for ovarian cysts. These may include pain medication or comfort measures such as heat therapy. Using a heating pad to the painful area may bring some relief. Another option is hormonal birth control methods which can prevent ovulation and therefore lower the risk of forming more cysts.

In about 5-10% of cases, an ovarian cyst may require surgical removal. This may be necessary if your cyst does not go away, grows larger, or causes pain.

An ovarian cystectomy is a surgical procedure that removes the ovarian cyst. In some cases, the doctor may suggest removing the affected ovary. An oophorectomy is a procedure that removes an ovary. After a surgery like this, you may stay in the hospital for 2 to 4 days. You should also avoid strenuous activity or exercise for a time. Your physician will give you instructions depending on your situation.

If you still have questions or you would like to discuss your symptoms with a specialist, Dr. David Howard, M.D., Ph.D. is available for consultation. MyVirtualPhysician treats OB/GYN conditions including irregular periods, vaginal bleeding, hormone imbalances, and more. Click below to schedule an appointment. If you have any suggestions for additional topics you want to read about please let us know! Don’t forget to follow us on social media.

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