Your ovaries are two walnut-sized organs situated in your lower abdomen on either side of your uterus. In pre-menopausal women, they store and, once a month, produce a ripe egg during the process of ovulation.
This article on symptoms and treatment of ovarian cysts is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.
As each egg matures it forms a cyst around it called a functional cyst, which eventually bursts as the egg is released into the fallopian tube. These cysts are normal and part of your everyday cycle. The ovaries also have a second important function, which is to produce the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which help regulate and control your menstrual cycle.
Occasionally a cyst will grow on your ovary that’s not related to a maturing egg. Sometimes many cysts will grow and you will have what’s called ‘polycystic ovaries’. This is different to having ‘polycystic ovarian syndrome’ (PCOS). Having cysts on your ovaries does not mean you suffer from PCOS.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder to affect pre-menopausal women, and covers a whole spectrum of symptoms, including obesity, loss of hair on the head, infertility, acne, the presence of hair on the face and body, ovarian cysts, and infrequent, often painful periods. Although there is no single cure for this disorder, PCOS can be affectively managed through diet, medication, and a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, the disease has not been fully understood yet, although it is believed to have a genetic cause.
What is a cyst?
A cyst is a fluid-filled sac which grows and develops, and either becomes an irritant needing surgical removal or will simply rupture and disappear on its own. Most ovarian cysts go away by themselves after a few months. Sometimes many cysts grow at the same time. This is caused by swollen egg chambers that either haven’t released the egg as they should or, less commonly, haven’t disappeared properly after the egg has been released.
Ovarian cysts are normally painless and very common – in fact, most ovaries have small cysts within them as a natural part of their function.
What happens if I have one very big cyst?
Sometimes if an egg hasn’t been released during a cycle, it can continue to grow sometimes becoming very large. This can cause a lot of pain and although it may just disappear by itself in time, it may need to be surgically removed to stop the discomfort. In very rare cases, it can be found to be cancerous, in which case you may need further surgery and/or a course of chemotherapy. Surgical removal of an ovarian cyst is a more likely option for women between the ages of 50-70. However, remember ovarian cysts are very common and roughly 95% are non-cancerous.
Do they affect fertility?
The presence of ovarian cysts does not necessarily affect your ability to have children, in that egg quality is not diminished. They may be a problem if the cysts are located at the entrance to the fallopian tube which could prevent the egg from travelling down the tube into the uterus. Also, if the ovarian cyst is located on the stem of the ovary, it can make the stem twist out of shape, preventing a blood supply from getting through, and causing a good deal of pain. In this case, you will probably need treatment in hospital.
How will I be treated?
Treatment for a cyst or cysts on the ovary depend on several factors, including your age, whether you’re post-menopausal, your symptoms if you have any, and the size and location of the cyst. Most ovarian cysts just disappear after a few weeks without any treatment as they finally rupture and dissolve harmlessly away. Women with ovarian cysts who have had the menopause may be monitored with regular blood tests, checking for the presence of the CA-125 protein. High levels of this protein can mean the cyst is turning malignant, however these high levels can be caused by other conditions too. Remember, the risk of developing ovarian cancer is very low if you have small cysts. Larger cysts may be removed using keyhole surgery.
What is the likelihood that I will develop more cysts?
Although it’s not fully understood why, some women are more prone to developing ovarian cysts than others. But since most rupture and dissolve without any treatment, you may not even know you have another.