Ovarian Cysts

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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What causes, and what are the types of ovarian cysts?

There are many causes of ovarian cysts, and most ovarian cysts are not cancerous.

  • Follicular cysts: The most common type is a follicular cyst, which results from the growth of a follicle. A follicle is the normal fluid-filled sac that contains an egg. Follicular cysts form when the follicle grows larger than normal during the menstrual cycle and does not open to release the egg. Usually, follicular cysts resolve on their own over the course of days to months. Follicular cysts can contain blood (hemorrhagic cysts) from leakage of blood into the egg sac.
  • Corpus luteum cysts: A Corpus luteum cyst is related to the menstrual cycle. The corpus luteum is an area of tissue within the ovary that occurs after an egg has been released from a follicle. If a pregnancy doesn't occur, the corpus luteum usually breaks down and disappears. It may, however, fill with fluid or blood and persist as a cyst on the ovary. Usually, this cyst is found on only one side, produces no symptoms and resolves spontaneously.
  • "Chocolate cysts:" Endometriosis is a condition in which cells that normally grow inside as a lining of the uterus (womb), instead grow outside of the uterus in other locations. The ovary is a common site for endometriosis. When endometriosis involves the ovary, the area of endometrial tissue may grow and bleed over time, forming a blood-filled cyst with red- or brown-colored contents called an endometrioma, sometimes referred to as a "chocolate cyst."
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome: The condition known as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is characterized by the presence of multiple small cysts within both ovaries. PCOS is associated with a number of hormonal problems and is the most common cause of infertility in women.
  • Dermoid cysts (benign cystic teratomas): Both benign and malignant tumors of the ovary may also be cystic. Occasionally, the tissues of the ovary develop abnormally to form other body tissues such as hair or teeth. Cysts with these abnormal tissues are really tumors called benign cystic teratomas or dermoid cysts.
  • Tubo-ovarian abscesses: Infections of the pelvic organs can involve the ovaries and Fallopian tubes. In severe cases, pus-filled cystic spaces may be present on, in, or around the ovary or tubes. These are known as tubo-ovarian abscesses.

Can ovarian cysts cause cancer?

Most ovarian cysts are not due to cancer, and having an ovarian cyst does not cause ovarian cancer. However, some ovarian cancers develop cystic areas inside the tumor. Ovarian cancer is much less common than benign ovarian cysts.

What are the risks of ovarian cysts during pregnancy?

Ovarian cysts are sometimes discovered during pregnancy. In most cases, they are an incidental finding at the time of routine prenatal ultrasound screening. The majority of ovarian cysts found during pregnancy are benign conditions that do not require surgical intervention. However, surgery may be indicated if there is a suspicion of malignancy, if an acute complication such as rupture or torsion (twisting of the cyst, disrupting the blood supply) develops, or if the size of the cyst is likely to present problems with the pregnancy.

Can a woman get ovarian cysts during peri-, or postmenopause?

Ovarian cysts may develop during pregnancy or at any point in a woman's life. Some kinds of ovarian cysts are related to the menstrual cycle and occur before a woman has reached menopause (the time point at which a women has not had a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months). However, postmenopausal women may still develop other types of ovarian cysts.

How are ovarian cysts diagnosed?

Sometimes ovarian cysts may be noticed by a doctor during a bimanual examination of the pelvis. If a cyst is suspected based upon symptoms or physical examination, imaging techniques are used. Most cysts are diagnosed by ultrasound, which is the best imaging technique for detecting them. Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce an image of structures within the body. Ultrasound imaging is painless and harmless. Transvaginal ultrasound is a diagnostic tool to better visualize the ovaries using a thin ultrasound probe inside the vagina.

Cysts can also be detected with other imaging methods, such as CT scan or MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/29/2016

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