When you hear you have cysts on one or both of your ovaries, you might be worried. The truth is ovarian cysts are common in women. You might not even be aware you have a cyst because you won’t experience any symptoms or pain, and most cysts will disappear within a few weeks or months without additional treatment. The issue that comes into play with cysts is if they grow or rupture, or if multiple cysts form on your ovaries. These can cause serious symptoms and pain. According to the Office of Women’s Health, about 8% of premenopausal women will need to seek treatment for enlarged cysts.
What are ovarian cysts and what causes them?
Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that develop in or on your ovaries, and there can be a variety of reasons they develop. The most common type of cysts is called functional cysts, which develop during your menstrual cycle. These types of cysts are normally nothing to worry about. They are usually benign, meaning non-cancerous, and they rarely cause you to have any other symptoms or pain. Most functional cysts disappear within two or three menstrual cycles. The two most common types of functional cysts are:
- Follicle cysts – Typically, each month your ovaries release an egg during ovulation. This egg grows inside a sac called a follicle. About halfway through your menstrual cycle, when the egg is matured, the follicle should break open and the egg will be released. However, if the follicle does not break open, a cyst can form on the ovary. There are usually no symptoms associated with follicle cysts and they typically disappear in one to three months.
- Corpus luteum cysts – When the follicle breaks open and releases the egg, the empty follicle sac should shrink and typically dissolves. However, if it does not dissolve, the sac can seal, and fluid may build up, causing a cyst to form called a corpus luteum cyst. This type of cyst typically goes away after a few weeks. However, some patients can experience pain if the cyst begins to bleed or twists the ovary.
Some other common types of cysts include:
- Cystadenomas – These cysts develop on the surface of ovaries and are typically non-cancerous. They are filled with a watery fluid and can become enlarged. This can cause your ovary to move out of position and possibly cause it to twist, causing pain. If your ovary stays twisted in can decrease or completely stop blood flow to your ovary.
- Dermoids – Patients typically have these cysts from birth. They are rarely cancerous, and they can form anywhere on the body, but are typically found on the ovaries, testes, the skin of the head, neck, face, or lower back or in the central nervous system according to The National Cancer Institute. Dermoid cysts come from egg and sperm cells, and form during fetal development when certain cells fuse together and get stuck in the wrong place. Dermoid cysts can contain different cell structures from the outer layers of our body, including hair, skin glands or teeth. These cysts are generally harmless, and only present problems if they cause the ovary to twist or if they rupture, which can cause intense pain.
- Endometriomas – These cysts develop in patients with endometriosis, a condition where the inside lining of the uterus grows on the outside. A cyst can form when the lining attaches to the ovaries.
Many women also have a syndrome called Polycystic Ovarian Syndromewhich can cause multiple small cysts to form on your ovaries. Women who have this syndrome may have a harder time getting pregnant. They should talk with their physician, who can offer solutions to help regulate their cysts and offer best next steps if wanting to become pregnant.
What are the symptoms of an ovarian cyst?
Most of the time, women will not even realize they have a cyst on their ovary. Most cysts typically go away on their own and don’t produce any unique symptoms. However, if the cyst continues to grow, you may start to experience:
- Bloating or swelling of your stomach
- Pelvic pain before or during your menstrual cycle
- Lower back and thigh pain
- Tenderness of your breasts
- Vomiting and nausea
- Unexplained weight gain
- Pain during intercourse
- Atypical vaginal bleeding
Ovarian cysts can become extremely painful if they rupture or cause your ovary to twist. When an ovarian cyst ruptures, it can cause extreme and sudden pain. If a cyst causes your ovary to twist, you may experience pain, along with nausea and vomiting.
What can increase your chances of developing ovarian cysts?
Several factors can increase your chances of developing ovarian cysts:
- Pregnancy – When you become pregnant, a cyst typically develops to support your pregnancy, and it should disappear once the placenta forms. Sometimes, the cyst will stay on your ovary even after the placenta forms and may need to be removed by your physician.
- Endometriosis – Patients with endometriosis may develop cysts on their ovaries if their uterine lining attaches to their ovary. These cysts can be very painful, especially during your period or sex.
- Hormonal problems – If your body has a difficult time ovulating, your doctor may prescribe medication to help you become more regular. Cysts may form when this medication is taken. Functional cysts may also form during your menstrual cycle, but typically resolve on their own.
- Severe pelvic infections – If an infection spreads from your pelvis to your ovaries if can cause cysts to form.
- A history of cysts – If you have previously had a cyst, you are more likely to get cysts in the future.
Do cysts on my ovaries indicate cancer?
Most women who develop cysts on their ovaries do not need to worry about the cysts becoming cancerous. However, there are some cysts that might become cancerous, causing ovarian cancer. Older women and women with a family history of ovarian cancer are more likely to develop cancerous cysts.
In general, ovarian cancer screenings are not recommended for a general population without increased risk or symptoms. Women who are have entered menopause or those that have a family history of ovarian, breast, uterine or colon cancer should talk with the doctor about the frequency of their screenings.
Will ovarian cysts decrease my chances of getting pregnant?
Most cysts will not decrease your ability to become pregnant. However, women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or endometriosis may experience more difficulty getting pregnant. If you wish to become pregnant, your doctor will be able to help guide you on best next steps and what, if any, medication should be taken to increase fertility.
The best approach to treating ovarian cysts is to be proactive with your health: speak to your doctor if you feel anything that is atypical and be sure to schedule your yearly gynecological appointments to help screen for possible cyst.