The ovaries are part of a woman's reproductive system. They are shaped as ovals and are about as small as a green olive. Each woman has two ovaries that secrete the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. Each ovary houses a woman's genetic material in gametes, which are also known as eggs. An ovarian cyst can interrupt the basic processes of a woman's reproductive system, causing hormonal imbalances and problems with pregnancy.
What Is An Ovarian Cyst?
During diagnosis, an ovarian cyst can take on the appearance of a cancerous tumor. In actuality, ovarian cysts are non-cancerous tumors; they are basically benign sacs where fluid accumulates that can occur almost anywhere in the body. The most common form of an ovarian cyst is a functional cyst. Functional cysts can be broken down into two categories:
- Follicle cysts: these cysts regularly subside within 1 to 3 months, and occur when an ovarian sac continues to grow because the egg inside was never released.
- Corpus luteum cysts: these cysts form when the ovarian sac does not dissolve after having released its egg. The sac will reseal itself and cause fluid to accumulate within. These ovarian cysts can grow up to 4 inches in size, and may also cause bleeding and pain. In some, rare instances, they may become cancerous.
Other Types of Ovarian Cysts
- Polycystic ovarian cysts are from matured eggs that are never released. Because the eggs are not released, the sac will continue to grow, forming many more cysts.
- Dermoid cysts contain many types of cells. These cysts may contain hair, teeth and any other tissues from the cells that can attach to the cyst. These cysts can grow in size causing pain.
- Cystadenomas are formed from cells outside of the ovary. These cysts can become more painful due to a thick, gel-like substance that causes it to grow in size.
- Endometriomas cysts occur due to endometriosis. These cysts are caused by inner lining of the uterus that starts to grow outside of the uterus. This abnormal tissue growth can attach to the ovaries causing cysts that can become painful during intercourse or menstruation.
Most ovarian cysts will not show any signs or symptoms. However, some can be detected due to the following symptoms:
- Pelvic pain
- Dull pain around the lower back and thighs
- Urination problems
- Painful intercourse
- Abdominal pain accompanied by pressure and/or swelling
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Tender breasts
The following are list of symptoms that require medical attention:
- Pain accompanied by a fever and vomiting
- Rapid breathing
- Dizzy spells
- Weakness or extreme fatigue
- Severe abdominal pain
Doctors can typically diagnose an ovarian cyst from a routine pelvic exam. The doctor will look for signs of a cyst, like swelling around the ovaries. Additional tests are then performed to help plan the most appropriate form of treatment. These tests include:
- Ultrasound: sound waves are used to create images that will indicate the size, shape, location and mass of the ovarian cyst.
- Pregnancy test: this can be performed to ensure symptoms aren’t signs of pregnancy.
- Hormone level tests: these tests will be performed to see if there are any signs of hormonal problems.
- Blood test: used to indicate whether an ovarian cyst is cancerous.
Because ovarian cysts can be quite common, and can often show little to no signs or symptoms, a physician may use a “watchful waiting” tactic when treating an ovarian cysts. In other words, the physician will ask the patient to have a second exam in 1 to 3 months before actually treating the cyst. Upon the second exam, the physician will check if there are any changes with the cyst, primarily a change in size. Watchful waiting is commonly used for women who are in their childbearing years, are suffering no symptoms, or have a cyst filled with fluid.
If a physician decides treatment is necessary for an ovarian cyst, these two forms of treatment may be used:
- Surgery: This form of treatment may be required for cysts that get larger, do not go away, causes severe pain or looks unusual in the ultrasound test. A surgeon can perform a laparoscopy, where a small incision is made below the navel and a small instrument is used to remove the cyst. A laparotomy may also be performed for larger cysts that may be cancerous. This procedure requires are larger incision around the stomach to remove the cyst.
- Birth control pills: A physician may prescribe birth control pills in an effort to keep the patient from ovulating. This will prevent new cysts from being formed.
If an ovarian cyst appears cancerous, a doctor may need to remove the ovary, uterus and other nearby tissues. Note that if only one ovary is removed, it is still possible to become pregnant and the production of estrogen will also continue.