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Ovarian Cysts

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or growths that form on the ovaries. The ovaries produce an egg each month. They also produce the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone.

What is going on in the body?

Ovarian cysts usually occur in women during reproductive years. If a cyst is discovered before puberty or after menopause, it may be cancerous. Other more common types of cysts occur throughout life and include:

  • cystadenoma cysts, which develop from cells on the outer surface of the ovary
  • dermoid cysts, which are filled with hair, mucus, and skin tissue
  • endometriomal cysts, which are formed when tissue from the uterine lining attaches to the ovaries
  • What are the causes and risks of the condition?

    Ovarian cysts are quite common. There are two types: functional and abnormal. Functional cysts develop as a part of the normal function of the ovary, or ovulation. Functional cysts are usually smaller than abnormal cysts. They generally go away without treatment. Abnormal cysts are often caused by an imbalance of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Most cysts are benign, or noncancerous.

    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    Most ovarian cysts do not cause symptoms. They may be found during a routine pelvic exam. If symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • delayed, irregular, or unusually painful periods
  • dull abdominal aching
  • an increase in facial or body hair
  • irregular bowel or bladder function
  • pain during exercise
  • pain during intercourse
  • a sense of pressure or fullness in the abdomen
  • If the cyst is twisted or has ruptured, symptoms may include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • severe abdominal pain
  • signs of shock from internal bleeding

  • Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    Diagnosis of ovarian cysts begins with a history and physical exam, including a pelvic exam. The healthcare provider may order additional test, including:

  • abdominal CT scan
  • abdominal MRI
  • diagnostic laparoscopy, in which a small tube is inserted into the abdomen
  • pelvic ultrasound
  • X-ray of the urinary system

  • Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the condition?

    In general, ovarian cysts cannot be prevented.

    What are the long-term effects of the condition?

    Functional cysts usually resolve without treatment. Some cysts may cause infertility, menstrual problems, and chronic pelvic pain. Cysts may become twisted, which can cut off their blood supply. This is considered an emergency, and surgery may be necessary to prevent gangrene of that ovary.

    A few cysts may turn out to be cancerous. For this reason, all cysts must be evaluated carefully. The risk of ovarian cancer is very small. It can be treated more successfully if it is found early in the course of the disease. Ovarian cancer is not common in women before menopause. Women who have an ovarian cyst between the ages of 50 to 70 are at a higher risk of having ovarian cancer.

    What are the risks to others?

    Ovarian cysts are not contagious, and pose no risk to others.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    Treatment options vary, depending on the woman's age and desire for children. The type, size, and age of the cyst are considered. Treatments include the following:

  • oral contraceptives
  • laparoscopy to drain fluid or remove the cyst
  • laparotomy, a procedure in which an incision is made in the abdomen to remove the cyst
  • What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Oral contraceptives may cause nausea, bloating, and headaches. Surgery may cause bleeding, infection, or allergic reaction to anesthesia.

    What happens after treatment for the condition?

    More frequent pelvic exams may be suggested by a healthcare provider for the first year after surgery. Certain cysts have a chance of returning.

    How is the condition monitored?

    Certain cysts may recur, so the healthcare provider may recommend regular ultrasounds. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.


    Author:Eva Martin, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Ballenberg, Sally, BS
    Edit Date:06/01/01
    Reviewer:William M. Boggs, MD
    Date Reviewed:06/01/01