Ganglion Cyst

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a ganglion cyst?

Ganglion cysts are fluid-filled lumps or masses that develop along tendons or joints. A common description pictures them growing like a balloon at the end of a stalk. The stalk rises from the tendon or joint.

Ganglion cysts occur most commonly on the back of the wrist and hand. In fact, they are the most common type of soft tissue mass or lump that develops in the hand. They can also occur on the underside of the wrist and hand, at the end finger joint, at the base finger joint, and in the feet and ankles. Ganglion cysts are noncancerous, usually harmless, and often do not require treatment.

What are the symptoms of a ganglion cyst?

Ganglion cysts vary in size and can grow larger with activity and repetitive movements. Small ganglion cysts may remain unnoticeable under the skin. However, most of them grow large enough to form visible lumps. This causes concern for some people about the appearance of their hands.

The cysts tend to be round or oval in shape and range from very soft to firm. There are no other signs and symptoms of a ganglion cyst itself. They are usually not painful. However, they can put pressure on nearby nerves causing pain, tingling or weakness. Cysts on the palm side may be tender with gripping and other forms of pressure. Large ones can also interfere with joint movement.

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

If you have a lump or mass in your hand, foot or ankle, see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

What causes a ganglion cyst?

Experts don’t fully understand what causes ganglion cysts. They can occur in people of all ages. However, they are most common in women 20 to 40 years in age and tend to appear in areas of irritation or previous injuries. Older women with arthritic fingers are more likely to develop ganglion cysts at the end of the finger.

What are the risk factors for ganglion cyst?

A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing a ganglion cyst. Risk factors include:

  • Age 20 to 40 years
  • Female gender
  • Joint or tendon injury

How is a ganglion cyst treated?

Treatment options depend on whether or not you have symptoms and how much the cyst’s appearance troubles you. If the cyst is not a bother, it may be best to leave it alone. Many ganglion cysts disappear on their own, so your doctor may recommend a period of observation.

If you decide on treatment, nonsurgical strategies are the first step. Strategies include:

  • Immobilization using a brace or splint. Restricting the activity of a joint may help shrink a ganglion cyst. As the size decreases, it can relieve pressure on nerves and other structures. This may relieve pain, tingling, and other symptoms. However, long-term immobilization can weaken muscles supporting the joint. Your doctor may recommend exercises to combat the effect of using a brace or splint.
  • NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). These medicines can relieve minor pain and inflammation. Your doctor may recommend them if you experience pain with certain activities.
  • Aspiration to drain the cyst. This is usually an office procedure. It involves numbing the area, inserting a needle into the cyst, and withdrawing the fluid. This deflates the balloon part of the cyst. However, the stalk, or root remains. As a result, recurrence is common after aspiration. Do not attempt to pop or puncture the cyst yourself. Doing so could damage tissues and lead to infection.

These treatments may be all that is necessary to resolve the cyst. If the cyst persists or returns, your doctor may recommend surgery. Ganglion cyst surgery is an outpatient procedure that removes both the balloon and the stalk of the cyst. This reduces the chance of the cyst recurring. However, there is still a small chance the cyst will return even after surgery. Recovery takes 2 to 6 weeks and will likely involve physical therapy to improve strength and range of motion.

What are the potential complications of a ganglion cyst?

There are no known complications of a ganglion cyst. However, complications are possible after surgery to treat a ganglion cyst. This includes:

  • Bleeding
  • Damage to blood vessels, nerves, or tendons
  • Infection
  • Joint stiffness
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 10
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Ganglion Cyst. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ganglion-cyst/home/ovc-20168586
  2. Ganglion Cyst. Medscape. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1243454-overview
  3. Ganglion Cyst of the Wrist and Hand. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00006
  4. Ganglion Cysts. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. http://www.assh.org/handcare/hand-arm-conditions/ganglion-cyst