The word "cyst" can make anyone a little uneasy, but awareness surrounding ovarian cysts has grown in recent years. If you're concerned that you or a loved one may have an ovarian cyst, it's important to learn everything you can about this relatively common and benign women's health phenomena.
What Is an Ovarian Cyst?
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines an ovarian cyst as "a sac or pouch filled with fluid or other tissue that forms in or on an ovary," occurring during childbearing years or after menopause. Health professionals identify several types of cysts, most of which are noncancerous and don't require treatment:
- Functional cyst: This is the most common type of cyst. They usually cause no symptoms and tend to dissipate without treatment within six to eight weeks.
- Teratoma: These cysts contain various bodily tissues, like skin and hair. A woman may be born with a teratoma, or it may form during her childbearing years. In rare instances, they progress to cancer.
- Cystadenoma: This is a type of cyst that forms on the outer surface of the ovary and can grow very large. They're usually benign.
- Endometrioma: These cysts form in women who suffer from endometriosis, a condition where the tissue that lines the uterus also appears outside of it, which can cause painful or uncomfortable complications.
Diagnosing a Cyst
In most cases, you may have an ovarian cyst and never know because they often don't cause symptoms. Doctors will usually identify and diagnose an ovarian cyst during a routine pelvic exam, but if your doctor believes you may have one, they may call for an ultrasound or blood tests. If ovarian cysts occur regularly or frequently, your doctor may diagnose you with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
If ovarian cysts are symptomatic, they can cause dull or sharp pains in your abdomen. If the cyst is large enough, it could cause your ovaries to twist, which may also cause pain that comes and goes or starts suddenly. Cysts may also bleed or burst, which can also lead to sudden, sharp pains.
The Fear Surrounding Ovarian Cysts
While most cysts are benign and produce no symptoms, women and their loved ones often harbor fears about them. This fear primarily stems from the (albeit rare) potential for a cyst to become cancerous. According to the ACOG, most ovarian cancers are caused by epithelial cells, which cover the surface of the ovary. If your body is frequently forming cysts on your ovary's surface, consider speaking with your doctor about other risk factors.
Treatment of Ovarian Cysts
Most of the time a cyst will disappear on its own over time without treatment, without you even knowing it was there. Should an ovarian cyst require treatment, though, your two options are either "watchful waiting" or surgery.
Doctors tend to only recommend surgery when a cyst is very large, causing other symptoms, or if the cyst could be cancerous. If this is the case, your doctor may perform a cystectomy, the removal of a cyst from the ovary, or an oophorectomy, the removal of the entire ovary from the body.
More often than not, you and your doctor will engage in "watchful waiting," which is the careful monitoring of an ovarian cyst through repeat ultrasound exams. These ultrasounds will ultimately determine whether the cyst's size or appearance has changed. It may take time, but most of these cysts resolve themselves without surgical intervention.
Getting Ahead of Your Health Needs
More women are switching to an ongoing, proactive approach to their ovarian health. If you have a personal or family history of ovarian cysts, discuss with your doctor any medical or holistic treatment methods that may decrease or even eliminate your chances for developing cysts in the future, or that can make current cysts more bearable.
According to the PCOS Awareness Association, losing as little as five percent excess weight could help women return to more normal ovulation, which in turn may lessen the chance for an ovarian cyst to form or reduce symptoms of existing cysts. Proper nutrition and exercise are highly recommended here, but your doctor may also prescribe medications or other remedies to treat symptoms associated with PCOS, such as irregular periods, acne, excess hair, and elevated blood sugar.
If you believe you or a loved one is suffering from an ovarian cyst or PCOS, discuss your medical history and options with your doctor to relieve any physical pain or emotional anxieties you may be experiencing.