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Ovarian Cysts—Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Updated on August 18, 2017
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Meagan has fought with ovarian cysts since she was a young teenage girl. She understands the effects of ovarian cysts on everyday life.

What is an Ovary?

In order for one to truly understand about ovarian cysts they first need to know what an ovary is, and its primary function inside of the body. This may sound like common knowledge but it is surprising how many people cannot come up with an exceptional answer when asked to explain an ovary.

The ovaries are organs found only in a woman's body, and they play a vital role in the female reproductive system. There are two ovarys in each woman's body and those can be found on either side of the uterus. Surprisingly, ovaries are not very large and are comparable to almonds in both shape and size.

These two small organs are responsible for the production of female hormones and thousands of tiny eggs. During a woman’s menstrual cycle an egg is developed inside a tiny sac in the ovary, the sack is called a follicle. The sac breaks open, an egg is released and begins it’s journey through the fallopian tubes. Meanwhile the follicle, which is now an empty sac, dissolves and becomes corpus luteum - which makes a hormone that will help as the body prepares for the next egg.

Ovaries are a vital part of the female reproductive system
Ovaries are a vital part of the female reproductive system

What is an Ovarian Cyst?

Ovarian cysts are fluid filled sacs that are found both inside, and on the outside surface, of a woman's ovary.

It is very common for a woman to have a cyst and never know it existed. This is because most ovarian cysts disappear without treatment on their own and cause very little discomfort, if any at all.

However, it is also not uncommon for a cyst to become very painful and can range in discomfort from mild to severe pain, especially when they rupture.

There are over three million cases involving ovarian cysts each year in the United States alone. Because of these statistics, it is important to know the symptoms of ovarian cysts so that you can seek medical help, also having pelvic exams regularly will help with early detection.

Most Common Types of Ovarian Cysts - Functional Cysts

Follicle Cysts

When the sac that contains an egg does not break open to dispense the egg, it will continue to grow. This is how a Follicle cyst is formed. Fortunately these cysts have a life span of one to three months and typically need no treatment, many women never know they have them.

Corpus Luteum Cysts

If the sac that contains an egg does release the egg but then seals itself after the egg has been dispensed, fluid will build inside of the sac and result in a Corpus luteum cyst.

They commonly take a few days to take care of themselves but can however grow to be four inches in size before doing so. Corpus cysts can bleed or twist the ovary which can result in pelvic pain.

You should always ask your Doctor about the side effects of ovulation drugs, due to the fact that there are some on the market that can increase your chances of developing a cyst.

Fully developed Corpus Luteum cyst on the outside of an ovary
Fully developed Corpus Luteum cyst on the outside of an ovary

Less Common Types of Ovarian Cysts

The following are cysts that are much less common then functional cysts.

Dermoid (DUR-moid) cysts

These cysts form from the cells that produce human eggs. They can harbor tissue such as skin, teeth and hair which becomes part of the cyst. It is rare for a Dermoid cyst to be cancerous but they can become painful due to the twisting of your ovary.

Endometriomas (EN-doh-MEE-tree-OH-muhs)

Women who have the condition endometriosis can form what is know as a cyst. Endometriosis is a condition where the uterine cells, that acts like the lining of the uterus, grows outside of the uterus. This tissue can eventually cling to your ovary and form a growth. These cysts can be painful while having intercourse and also during your menstrual cycle.

Cystadenomas (siss-tahd-uh-NOH-muhs)

A cystadenomas forms from cells on the outside of your ovary. They can grow to enormous size, up to twelve inches or more in diameter. They are usually filled with a thick sticky gel, or a watery fluid. Considering how big they can get, it is obvious that these would be the most painful. They are especially painful if they rupture or cause your ovary to twist.

Polycystic (pol-ee-SISS-tik) ovaries

When eggs are grown within the sacs of your ovary, and then not released you are left with a cyst. When this happens each month over a long period of time you are left with many cysts. This is called Polycystic ovary disease. This condition can make it very hard to get pregnant because you need an egg to be released in order for it to be fertilized. If no eggs are being relseaed there is no chance of becoming pregnant.

Photo of a Dermoid Cyst: notice the hair that has formed inside this mature cyst!
Photo of a Dermoid Cyst: notice the hair that has formed inside this mature cyst!

Symptoms of Ovarian Cysts

So how do I know if I have an ovarian cyst? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is complicated. The problem with diagnosing an ovarian cyst is that it shares many of its symptoms with other medical complications. Conditions such as: endometriosis, ovarian cancer, ectopic pregnancy and pelvic inflammatory disease. This makes it very hard to discover the presence of an ovarian cyst by symptoms alone.

The other thing that makes it hard to diagnose an ovarian cyst in its early stages is the fact that there are sometimes no symptoms at all. In many cases a woman will live with the cyst and have no problems until it ruptures.

It is very important to have yearly exams by a medical provider in order to ensure a cyst does not go undiagnosed. There are also a handful of symptoms to watch for that could detect the presence of an ovary, those symptoms are:

  • Pain in your abdomen, pelvic area, during sex or your while having your period.
  • Pressure or swelling in the abdomen.
  • Aches in your lower back or thighs.
  • Problems urinating.
  • Gaining weight.
  • Abnormal bleeding or spotting.
  • Symptoms associated with pregnancy such as nausea or vomiting and breast tenderness.

If you have more severe symptoms seek help right away. These symptoms include:

  • Sudden abdominal pain along with a fever or vomiting.
  • Faintness, weakness or dizziness.
  • Pain during bowel movements.
  • A lot of pressure on your rectum or bladder while going to the bathroom.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Period irregularities.
  • Severe pain during intercourse.
  • Heaviness in your abdomen.

What Causes an Ovarian Cyst?

Every month your ovaries grow a cyst like structure called a follicle. In some cases these follicles continue to grow when they should not. This causes what is known as a functional cyst. It was dubbed its name because it started during a normal function of your body. Functional cysts are the most likely to occur, are usually harmless and will eventually disappear. There are some fertility drugs on the market that many believe to be linked to the development of cysts. Talk to your doctor about the side effects of any fertility drug before taking them.

How are Ovarian Cysts Diagnosed?

During a routine pelvic exam your doctor may feel abnormal swelling of an ovary. If that happens they will most likely order tests. Here are the test that should be done in order to determine whether you do in fact have a cyst and if it is dangerous.

Pregnancy Test: This is to rule out pregnancy.

Hormone Level Test: This is to determine if the problem is hormone related, if it is they will most likely put you o the correct hormones to see if that helps. If it does not they will probably proceed to the next step.

Blood Test: This will be done to find out whether the cyst is cancerous. They will check the CA-125 level in your blood. If it is high ovarian cancer may be suspected. This test is normally given to woman who are over 35 and are at high risk for ovarian cancer.

Ultrasound: This is so they can see the size, shape, location and mass of the cyst. It is not comfortable and is usually the last test they will conduct.

Who can Have an Ovarian Cyst?

Cysts typically occur during a woman’s child bearing years while eggs are being produced in the ovaries. These cysts are normally not cancerous and treat themselves. After menopause a woman is at higher risk to develop a cancerous cyst.

People who use an oral contraceptive have a decreased chance of forming cysts. This is because while on an oral contraceptive you body does not produce eggs. Making it less likely to form a functional cyst.

Other risk factors involved in the formation of ovarian cysts are:

  • Early periods (eleven years or younger)
  • Infertility
  • Hypothyroidism
  • History of ovarian cysts
  • Increased upper body fat

Can an Ovarian Cyst Cause Miscarriage During Prgnancy?

Generally, if you can become pregnant a cyst should not harm the pregnancy. However, a cyst can interfere with a woman's fertility because they either halt the production of eggs or not release them once they have developed.

Many cysts will go away on their own but some may need treatment. If you have cysts and are having difficulty becoming pregnant, you should visit your doctor to talk about treatment options that may be right for you.

Treatment options.

Once you have detected a cyst it will be time to determine it’s treatment. Treatment options vary and depend on how dangerous the cyst is. Once you have gone through the tests and learned all the information, such as size and type, your doctor will recommend treatment options. Which may include:

Waiting it out: Most often your doctor will want to wait before going onto more advanced treatment. This is so they can see if the cyst will take care of itself. Many will and by doing this you will eliminate the need to go through painful surgery for nothing.

Birth Control Pills: These may be recommended to reduce the chance of new cyst forming. As a bonus contraceptive pills can also reduce your risks of ovarian cancer.

Surgery: If your cyst has not treated itself, gotten larger over time, is seriously painful, does not look like a functional cyst and is suspected of being cancerous surgery will be necessary. The types of surgery that may be needed are:

A cystectomy: This is when a cysts is able to be removed without having to have the ovary removed along with it.

A oophorectomy: Is when the affected ovary is removed along with the cyst.

A hysterectomy: Is when both ovaries and the uterus are removed. This is usually done because you have a very large cancerous mass.

Laparoscopy: While under a very small incision is made, they will put a small microscope into your abdomen and remove the cyst that way. This is typically done with a very small cyst that you want treated.

Laparotomy: If the cyst is larger this is the other form of surgery that might be done. This requires a larger incision, as before the cyst will be removed and then tested for cancer.

© 2008 Meagan Ireland

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