Cysts, or fluid-filled sacs, can develop anywhere in the body, including the ovaries. Ovarian cysts can emerge at any age but most often occur when a woman is in childbearing years, having regular menstrual periods and ovulating each month. In fact, each month that a woman ovulates, a small cyst forms on her ovary and resolves naturally during menstruation. Sometimes, an ovarian cyst can become larger over time and cause pain.
If an ovarian cyst is suspected or discovered, in most cases, your physician will initially suggest monitoring its size by ultrasound over time.
Frequently ovarian cysts have no symptoms. Cysts may be discovered on physical examination or during an ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan that has been performed for an unrelated reason.
Symptoms of ovarian cysts or related conditions include:
- Lower abdominal or pelvic pain
- Lower abdominal or pelvic pressure or sensation of fullness
- Pain with sexual intercourse or exercise
- Pain or pressure with urination or bowel movements
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or spotting
Ovarian cysts can occur in women and girls of all ages. The most common causes of ovarian cysts depend on age.
For women who have regular monthly menstrual periods, it is normal for a cyst to form on the surface of the ovary, which holds the maturing egg. Usually the cyst resolves during a woman’s period but sometimes the egg is not released or the cyst fills with fluid after the egg is released, causing a “functional” or “physiologic” cyst. The words “follicular” or “luteal” also are used to describe functional cysts. Numerous other causes exist for ovarian cysts, which are benign, or not cancerous.
Examples of other non-cancerous cysts:
- Dermoid cysts (can contain fat, hair or cartilage)
- Endometriomas (cysts filled with blood and associated with endometriosis)
- Cystadenomas (benign cysts that can be filled with mucous or serous fluid)
Non-cancerous types of ovarian cysts are common in post-menopausal women, too, and can include those listed above. Still, the risk of cancer increases with age, so your health-care provider may recommend additional tests or referral to a specialist if you are over 50.
Potential risk factors for developing ovarian cysts or conditions associated with such cysts are:
Birth control pills decrease the risk of developing ovarian cysts by preventing ovulation. In addition, birth control pills have been associated with a lower risk of ovarian cancer.
Often ovarian cysts involve no symptoms or complications, and they may resolve on their own. Complications that arise may include pain or an abdominal sensation of pressure. Pain may be sudden and severe when an ovarian cyst ruptures, bleeds or becomes twisted (“ovarian torsion”). Some conditions associated with ovarian cyst formation, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome or endometriosis, are associated with infertility.