Causes of Ovarian Cysts and How to Treat Them

Medically Reviewed By Fernando Mariz, MD
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An ovarian cyst is a fluid filled sac on a female’s ovary. Most ovarian cysts are functional cysts, which means that they form during the typical menstrual cycle. Ovarian cysts are common in females of childbearing age. They are less common once they reach menopause. Cysts can vary in size and number.

Read on to learn more about ovarian cysts. This guide includes information about the types of ovarian cysts, what causes them, and when to contact a doctor about an ovarian cyst.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “female” and “women” when discussing people assigned female at birth to reflect language that appears in source materials.

Learn more about the difference between sex and gender here.

What are the types of ovarian cysts?

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There are different types of ovarian cysts, with the most common types being functional cysts. These form during the menstrual cycle and are typically benign.

Common functional cysts include:

  • Follicular cysts: The egg released during the menstrual cycle grows inside a tiny sac or follicle. A follicle cyst can grow if the follicle does not break open, which is necessary for releasing the egg. Follicle cysts can go away on their own in around 1–3 months.
  • Corpus luteum cysts: After a follicle releases the egg, it shrinks into a cell mass called a corpus luteum. If the follicle seals itself, it can sometimes fill up with fluid or blood, causing it to grow again. It is now a corpus luteum cyst. This cyst takes a few weeks to go away. In some cases, they can grow several centimeters.

Other types of ovarian cysts include:

  • Endometriomas: These occur as a result of endometriosis, which develops as a result of the uterus lining growing outside of the uterus.
  • Dermoids: Dermoids grow from cells that are present from birth. They are usually asymptomatic.
  • Cystadenomas: These cysts fill with a watery fluid that can cause them to grow to a large size.
  • Cancerous cysts: Malignant or cancerous ovarian cysts are rare, with a woman’s lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer being around 1 in 78. They are more common in older adults, with over half of ovarian cancer diagnoses occurring at the age of 63 years or over.

Are ovarian cysts and PCOS the same?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition caused by a hormone imbalance. It affects around 6–12% of women in the United States.

The main symptoms of PCOS include:

  • ovarian cysts
  • irregular periods
  • high levels of androgen hormones

Having ovarian cysts does not necessarily mean that you have PCOS. Contact your doctor if you have concerns about PCOS.

Learn more about PCOS here.

What causes an ovarian cyst?

Functional ovarian cysts develop out of the usual process of ovulation. Each month, an ovary releases an egg, which grows inside a follicle, or sac.

  • A follicular cyst grows when the follicle does not break open. Instead, the sac continues to grow, which creates the cyst.
  • A corpus luteum cyst occurs when the follicle seals itself back up after releasing an egg. It fills with fluid and grows into a cyst.

Most women have at least one cyst per menstrual cycle, and these are usually asymptomatic. However, around 8% of premenopausal women will develop a large cyst in their lifetime that will require treatment.

Aside from being part of the menstrual cycle, other causes of ovarian cysts include:

  • changes in hormones
  • some ovulation drugs
  • endometriosis, which can cause endometrioma cysts
  • pregnancy, as an ovarian cyst typically develops for support until the placenta grows
  • a pelvic infection that spreads to the ovaries and fallopian tubes

What are the symptoms of an ovarian cyst?

Many ovarian cysts do not cause any symptoms. They are typically small and go away on their own.

However, symptoms that can sometimes occur if you have a cyst include:

Possible causes of pain with a cyst include:

  • a ruptured cyst, which can cause sudden and severe pain
  • twisting of an ovary as a result of a cyst, which can also cause vomiting and nausea

Less common ovarian cyst symptoms include:

  • pain during sex
  • unexplained weight gain
  • pain during menstruation
  • unusual vaginal bleeding
  • a dull ache in the thighs and lower back
  • difficulty emptying the bladder or bowel
  • tender breasts
  • an increased need to urinate

Contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. A pelvic examination can help determine if you have an ovarian cyst.

Serious symptoms of an ovarian cyst

In rare cases, an ovarian cyst may cause a medical emergency if it ruptures. Seek immediate medical help if you have a known cyst and any of the following symptoms:

How do doctors treat ovarian cysts?

Treatment for an ovarian cyst depends on the size of the cyst and whether or not you have any symptoms. Most functional ovarian cysts go away on their own and do not require treatment.

If you do have pain or other symptoms as a result of an ovarian cyst, your doctor may recommend:

  • over-the-counter or prescription medications for pain relief
  • hormonal birth control to prevent recurring cysts, which can include:
    • the pill
    • the vaginal ring
    • a hormone patch
    • hormone injections

Learn more about birth control options here.

Do you need surgery for an ovarian cyst?

Most ovarian cysts go away on their own and do not require surgery. However, around 5–10% of people will have surgery to remove a cyst in the ovary. Of those surgically removed, only 13–21% of ovarian cysts are cancerous.

You may require surgery if you:

  • have gone through menopause
  • have a cyst that does not go away after a few months
  • have a cyst that grows in size
  • experience pain as a result of the cyst
  • may be experiencing ovarian torsion

Ovarian cyst surgery typically involves a laparoscopy. During this minimally invasive procedure, your surgeon will make a small incision on your lower abdomen and use an instrument called a laparoscope to look inside. A laparoscope is a thin tube with a little camera on the end of it. Learn more here.

If the cyst is particularly large or your doctor suspects malignancy, a laparotomy may be necessary. A surgeon will make a larger cut on your abdomen during this procedure, allowing them to more effectively remove the cyst.

In many cases, you may not know that you have an ovarian cyst. However, you should contact your doctor if you experience abdominal pain and any other symptoms of ovarian cysts.

If your doctor suspects that you have an ovarian cyst, they will be able to carry out tests and advise on the best medication or treatment for you.

How do doctors diagnose ovarian cysts?

A pelvic examination to feel for swelling can help your doctor diagnose an ovarian cyst. If your doctor does suspect that you have an ovarian cyst, various tests can help confirm this.

Tests for diagnosing an ovarian cyst include:

  • an ultrasound scan to check for the shape, size, and location of the cyst
  • hormone level tests
  • blood tests

Blood tests can detect the amount of cancer-antigen 125 (CA-125) in your blood, which may be elevated in certain types of ovarian cancers. However, there may be other causes of elevated CA-125 levels, so your doctor may use a blood test only as part of the information required for diagnosing a cyst.

Your doctor may also recommend a pregnancy test. You may have an ovarian cyst during pregnancy before the placenta forms.

Do ovarian cysts affect pregnancy?

Ovarian cysts are actually common during pregnancy and do not usually cause any problems.

However, you may have a cyst caused by an underlying health problem that can affect fertility. This includes endometriosis and PCOS.

Contact your doctor if you are thinking of starting a family or are pregnant and have concerns about ovarian cysts.

View our fertility and conception hub for more articles about becoming pregnant.

Are there any risk factors for an ovarian cyst?

The main risk factor for having an ovarian cyst is being a female of childbearing age and menstruating regularly.

If you frequently get functional ovarian cysts, which often occur as part of the menstrual cycle, your doctor may recommend hormonal birth control to reduce this risk.

What are the complications of an ovarian cyst?

Although most ovarian cysts do not cause any symptoms, there may be complications in some cases.

Possible complications of an ovarian cyst include:

  • pelvic pain
  • rupturing of the cyst
  • blood loss
  • ovarian torsion

If your doctor diagnoses an ovarian cyst, they may recommend watchful waiting, which involves keeping an eye on it with ultrasound scans. This will help monitor any changes or risks of complications.

How can you prevent an ovarian cyst?

It is not possible to prevent functional ovarian cysts that occur during your usual menstrual cycle.

However, if you frequently experience painful symptoms of cysts, your doctor may recommend hormonal birth control. This can prevent functional ovarian cysts by either reducing or stopping ovulation.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some more frequently asked questions about ovarian cysts.

How long do ovarian cysts take to go away?

Functional ovarian cysts can take around 1–3 months to go away on their own.

Do you bleed when ovarian cysts burst?

If an ovarian cyst ruptures or bursts, it can cause a lot of bleeding in rare cases. This is a medical emergency, and urgent treatment is required.

What does an ovarian cyst rupture feel like?

A ruptured ovarian cyst can be a medical emergency. If a cyst ruptures, you may experience:

  • sudden and severe abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Seek immediate medical help if you suspect that you have a ruptured cyst.

Summary

Ovarian cysts are common occurrences during the menstrual cycle. They do not usually present any symptoms, and they go away on their own within a few weeks or months.

However, if you do experience pain or discomfort as a result of a cyst, your doctor may recommend pain medication or hormonal birth control. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove a large or malignant cyst.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about ovarian cysts. They will be able to carry out a pelvic exam and run tests, where necessary, to reach a diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: Fernando Mariz, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 May 30
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