Ovarian cyst

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An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac that can develop on or in the ovaries.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is an ovarian cyst?

The ovaries are a pair of organs in a women’s reproductive system which release eggs and female sex hormones. Ovarian cysts are common and usually harmless. They’re most often found in women of childbearing age because they’re linked to ovulation. They can vary in size, from a few centimetres to the size of a melon.

Ovarian cysts do not usually prevent you from becoming pregnant, but they can make it more difficult to conceive naturally.

Most ovarian cysts disappear in a few months without needing treatment. Nearly all ovarian cysts that develop before the menopause are non-cancerous (benign).

How to tell if you have an ovarian cyst

There are often no ovarian cyst symptoms and many women don’t know they have one.

However, if it’s very large, blocks the blood supply to your ovaries or bursts (a ruptured ovarian cyst), it can cause symptoms such as:

If you experience sudden, severe abdominal or pelvic pain, you should seek urgent medical attention.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for ovarian cysts

Because most ovarian cysts don’t have any symptoms, they might only be spotted during a routine examination or investigation for another condition.

If your GP thinks you have a cyst, they’ll refer you for an ultrasound scan. This may be a transvaginal ultrasound scan, where an ultrasound probe is inserted into your vagina to look at your abdomen more clearly.

Although rare, if there’s any reason to suspect an ovarian cyst may be or may become cancerous, they’ll arrange blood tests to help rule it out.

Causes of ovarian cysts

The most common type of ovarian cyst is called a functional ovarian cyst which develops as part of the menstrual cycle. They’re non-cancerous, usually harmless and short-lived.

Other types of cysts and their causes are:

  • Pathological cysts – caused by abnormal cell growth not related to the menstrual cycle and can therefore develop before and after the menopause
  • Polycystic ovaries – lots of tiny benign cysts in your ovaries that develop due to a hormone imbalance
  • Endometriomas – develop as a result of endometriosis, a condition where the cells that make up the lining of your womb (endometrium) start to grow elsewhere, including your ovaries, and can sometimes form blood-filled cysts

There are also more rare types of cysts that develop from different tissues or due to other conditions.

Occasionally, ovarian cysts can be cancerous and will need to be surgically removed.

Common treatments for ovarian cysts

Many cysts don’t need treatment and will disappear on their own. Your doctor may suggest regular check-ups to monitor the cyst and confirm it’s gone. Regular blood tests for cancer are recommended if you’ve been through the menopause because the risk of ovarian cancer is slightly higher.

Surgical removal may be needed if a cyst is:

  • Large
  • Causing symptoms
  • Potentially cancerous

This can be done through open surgery or keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery.

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