Like many health complications, ovarian cysts range from being no big deal to something that requires immediate medical intervention. Luckily, most ovarian cysts fall into the former camp, but it’s understandable that people tend to lump all of these into one category.
In case you’re not familiar with them, ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs in the ovary that can form during ovulation (i.e. when your ovary releases an egg every month). Some cysts aren’t noticeable, but others can become big and even painful for a woman.
There’s probably a lot you don’t know about ovarian cysts, or maybe you’re fuzzy on the details. Here’s what needs to be on your radar.
They’re pretty common.
If you’re ovulating regularly, you have plenty of chances to make a cyst. That’s why ovarian cysts are common—many women have ovarian cysts at some time during their lives, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most of them will go away on their own in a few months, while larger cysts might cause pelvic pain or bloating.
There are several different types of cysts.
Some happen more often than others, but these are the most common:
Follicles are tiny sacs that grow and hold an egg. The egg is released when the follicle breaks open—this is a regular part of your menstrual cycle. But a cyst can form if the follicle doesn’t break open to release the egg. However, it’s unlikely you’d even notice that something was off. Follicular cysts usually have no symptoms and go away in one to three months, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “As long as it’s normal, not causing a whole lot of pain, and not growing too much, it’s not a real problem,” Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells SELF.
Corpus luteum cysts
When a follicle breaks open and releases an egg, the empty sac shrinks into a mass of cells called corpus luteum. Then, corpus luteum makes hormones to get your next egg ready for your next menstrual cycle. But, if the sac doesn’t shrink like it’s supposed to, it can form a fluid-filled cyst. Most of these go away after a few weeks, but they can also grow to be almost four inches wide.
There are other types of less-common, benign (meaning, non-cancerous) cysts that can form like endometriomas (cysts that can form as a result of endometriosis), dermoids (a cyst that can contain hair, fluid, teeth, or skin glands), or cystadenomas (fluid-filled cysts that can become large), Dr. Greves says. Cancerous cysts can also form, but these are fairly rare, according to American Cancer Society.
It can be uncomfortable when a cyst ruptures.
If you’ve ever felt a sudden, sharp twinge pain in your lower abdomen that quickly went away, it could have been an ovarian cyst rupturing, Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of minimally invasive gynecology at The University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, tells SELF. If you experience it, it doesn’t hurt to call your doctor, she says. They may have you wait and see if the pain lingers. And, if it does, they’ll have you to come in for an ultrasound or pelvic exam to make sure everything is OK down there.
Some cysts can create an emergency situation.
Cysts can grow pretty large if they don’t rupture, and some can even cause what’s known as a torsion, which causes the ovary to twist on itself. “A torsion can kink up the blood supply and kill the ovary,” Dr. Greves says. “We don’t wait on that—that’s a surgical emergency.” (Torsions are incredibly painful, Dr. Greves says, so it’s unlikely that it would just happen without you knowing something was wrong.) However, if a cyst has grown large and is causing pain but didn’t cause a torsion, it may also need to be removed surgically to ease your symptoms and remove the risk of torsion down the road, Dr. Shepherd says.
The link between ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer is kind of hazy.
Cancerous cysts are ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, according to the American Cancer Society. About 22,440 women in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2017, the organization reports.
When a cyst forms, it’s usually already established whether it’s cancerous or not, Dr. Shepherd says. Meaning, it’s not common for a cyst to form and then turn cancerous, but it can happen (these are known as “borderline cysts,” Dr. Shepherd says). If you have a history of ovarian cysts, you aren’t more likely than anyone else to develop ovarian cancer—factors like carrying a specific mutation in the BRCA gene or having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer matter more, Dr. Greves says.
You can prevent ovarian cysts from forming.
If you have a history of noticeable ovarian cysts, you should talk to your doctor. Hormonal birth control can prevent ovarian cysts from forming since it inhibits ovulation, Dr. Greves says, and your doctor may suggest that as a preventative measure for you.