By Sergio Vignali, MD
If you are a woman who still has a regular menstrual cycle, chances are you have had an ovarian cyst, but have never known it.
An ovarian cyst is a fluid filled sac that develops either in or on a woman’s ovaries. Ovarian cysts are very common with women in their reproductive years. In fact, most women develop at least one cyst every month, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In a normal menstrual cycle, the ovaries release an egg each month. That egg grows inside a tiny sac called a follicle. When the egg matures, the follicle breaks open to release the egg. Cysts can form when the sac fails to release the egg, and instead keeps growing, or when the sac reseals itself after the egg is released and fills with fluid. Both types of cysts disappear between two to four weeks after forming, and often leave no sign they ever existed.
There are occasions when cysts do cause symptoms. Women may experience pressure, bloating, swelling or pain in the lower abdomen on the side of the cyst. The pain can be sharp, dull and even come and go. If a cyst ruptures, the pain can be sudden and severe. Cysts that cause the ovary to twist can cause pain as well as nausea and vomiting, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Ovarian cysts can range in size from as small as a pea to as large as an orange. According to the HHS, about eight percent of premenopausal women develop large cysts that need treatment. Treatment options depend on many factors including the size of the cyst as well as the patient’s age. Options include watchful waiting, combined hormone treatments, and surgery. Birth control can be given to a woman after she has experienced a painful cyst to reduce her risk for developing future ones.
All women are at-risk for developing ovarian cysts, but there are conditions that increase the likelihood a woman may develop them. Women who experience hormonal problems, endometriosis, pregnancy and severe pelvic infections all create environments in which cysts form. There are times when an ovarian cyst is cancerous; however, it is not considered common. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that up to 10 percent of women have surgery to remove a cyst, but only 13 to 21 percent of those cases are cancerous.
In most cases, ovarian cysts develop and are reabsorbed into a woman’s body without any sign they ever existed. It is still important for women to know they are at risk for developing such cysts in case they would ever experience symptoms that would merit medical help. Women who have been told by a doctor that they have an ovarian cyst should know the warning signs that require immediate medical attention. These include: a pain with fever and vomiting; sudden, severe abdominal pain; faintness, weakness or dizziness; and rapid breathing.
Sergio Vignali, MD, is an OB/Gyn physician with Premier Health Specialists who practices at Upper Valley Women’s Center in Troy.