What Are Ovarian Cysts?
Ovarian cysts are small fluid-filled sacs that develop in a woman’s ovaries. Most cysts are harmless, but some may cause problems such as rupture, bleeding, or pain. Moreover, surgery may be required in certain situations to remove the cyst(s). It is important to understand the function of the ovaries and how these cysts develop.
What are the ovaries and what is their function?
Women normally have two ovaries that store and release eggs. Each ovary is about the size of a walnut, and one ovary is located on each side of the uterus. One ovary releases an egg each month, and this process is called ovulation. Ovulation occurs in roughly the middle of a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. The egg is enclosed in a sac called a follicle. An egg grows inside the ovary while estrogen (a hormone released by the ovary) prepares the uterus for a developing pregnancy. Estrogen causes the lining of the uterus to grow and thicken so as to prepare for implantation of the fertilized egg resulting in a pregnancy. This cycle occurs each month. If the egg is not fertilized, the contents of the uterus are then expelled resulting in the onset of a menstrual period. The first day of bleeding is considered the first day of the ensuing menstrual cycle.
Signs and symptoms
Most cysts are symptomless. If symptoms are present, they are not always useful for diagnosing an ovarian cyst, because other conditions, such as endometriosis, have similar symptoms.
Symptoms of an ovarian cyst may include:
- Irregular and possibly painful menstruation: It may be heavier or lighter than before.
- Pain in the pelvis: This may be a persistent pain or an intermittent dull ache that spreads to the lower back and thighs. It may appear just before menstruation begins or ends.
- Dyspareunia: This is pelvic pain that occurs during sexual intercourse. Some women might experience pain and discomfort in the abdomen after sex.
- Bowel issues: These include pain when passing a stool, pressure on the bowels or a frequent need to pass a stool.
- Abdominal issues: There may be bloating, swelling, or heaviness in the abdomen.
- Urinary issues: The woman may have problems emptying the bladder fully or she may or feeling the need to urinate frequently.
- Hormonal abnormalities: Rarely, the body produces abnormal amounts of hormones, resulting in changes in the way the breasts and body hair grow.
Some symptoms may resemble those of pregnancy, for example, breast tenderness and nausea.
An ovarian cyst often causes no problems, but sometimes it can lead to complications.
- Torsion: The stem of an ovary can become twisted if the cyst is growing on it. It can block the blood supply to the cyst and cause severe pain in the lower abdomen.
- Burst cyst: If a cyst bursts, the patient will experience severe pain in the lower abdomen. If the cyst is infected, pain will be worse. There may also be bleeding. Symptoms may resemble those of appendicitis or diverticulitis.
- Cancer: In rare cases, a cyst may be an early form of ovarian cancer.
Treatment will depend on:
- the person’s age
- whether they have undergone menopause or not
- the size and appearance of the cyst
- whether there are any symptoms