Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pockets in an ovary or on its surface. Women have two ovaries — each about the size and shape of an almond — on each side of the uterus. Eggs (ova), which develop and mature in the ovaries, are released in monthly cycles during the childbearing years.
Many women have ovarian cysts at some time. Most ovarian cysts present little or no discomfort and are harmless. The majority disappears without treatment within a few months.
However, ovarian cysts — especially those that have ruptured — can cause serious symptoms. To protect your health, get regular pelvic exams and know the symptoms that can signal a potentially serious problem.
Most cysts don’t cause symptoms and go away on their own. However, a large ovarian cyst can cause:
Seek immediate medical attention if you have:
If you have these signs and symptoms or those of shock — cold, clammy skin; rapid breathing; and lightheadedness or weakness — see a doctor right away.
Most ovarian cysts develop as a result of your menstrual cycle (functional cysts). Other types of cysts are much less common.
Your ovaries normally grow cyst-like structures called follicles each month. Follicles produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone and release an egg when you ovulate.
If a normal monthly follicle keeps growing, it’s known as a functional cyst. There are two types of functional cysts:
Types of cysts not related to the normal function of your menstrual cycle include:
Your risk of developing an ovarian cyst is heightened by:
Some women develop fewer common types of cysts that a doctor finds during a pelvic exam. Cystic ovarian masses that develop after menopause might be cancerous (malignant). That’s why it’s important to have regular pelvic exams.
Infrequent complications associated with ovarian cysts include:
Although there’s no way to prevent ovarian cysts, regular pelvic examinations help ensure that changes in your ovaries are diagnosed as early as possible. Be alert to changes in your monthly cycle, including unusual menstrual symptoms, especially ones that persist for more than a few cycles. Talk to your doctor about changes that concern you.
A cyst on your ovary can be found during a pelvic exam. Depending on its size and whether it’s fluid filled, solid or mixed, your doctor likely will recommend tests to determine its type and whether you need treatment. Possible tests include:
Elevated CA 125 levels can also occur in noncancerous conditions, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Treatment depends on your age, the type and size of your cyst, and your symptoms. Your doctor might suggest:
Your doctor will likely recommend that you get follow-up pelvic ultrasounds at intervals to see if your cyst changes in size.
Some cysts can be removed without removing the ovary (ovarian cystectomy). In some cases, your doctor might suggest removing the affected ovary and leaving the other intact (oophorectomy).
If a cystic mass is cancerous, your doctor will likely refer you to a gynecologic cancer specialist. You might need to have your uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes removed (total hysterectomy) and possibly chemotherapy or radiation. Your doctor is also likely to recommend surgery when an ovarian cyst develops after menopause.