Ovarian Cysts Overview
Ovarian cysts are small fluid-filled sacs that develop in a woman's ovaries. Most cysts are harmless, but some may cause problems such as rupture, bleeding, or pain. Moreover, surgery may be required in certain situations to remove the cyst(s). It is important to understand the function of the ovaries and how these cysts may form.
Women normally have two ovaries that store and release eggs. Each ovary is about the size of a walnut, and one ovary is located on each side of the uterus. One ovary produces one egg each month, and this process starts a woman's monthly menstrual cycle. The egg is enclosed in a sac called a follicle. An egg grows inside the ovary until estrogen (a hormone), signals the uterus to prepare itself for the egg. In turn, the lining of the uterus begins to thicken and prepare for implantation of a fertilized egg resulting in pregnancy. This cycle occurs each month and usually ends when the egg is not fertilized. All contents of the uterus are then expelled if the egg is not fertilized. This is called a menstrual period.
In an ultrasound image, ovarian cysts resemble bubbles. The cyst contains only fluid and is surrounded by a very thin wall. This kind of cyst is also called a functional cyst, or simple cyst. If a follicle fails to rupture and release the egg, the fluid remains and can form a cyst in the ovary. This usually affects one of the ovaries. Small cysts (smaller than one-half inch) may be present in a normal ovary while follicles are being formed.
Ovarian cysts affect women of all ages. The vast majority of ovarian cysts are considered functional (physiologic). This means they occur normally and are not part of a disease process. Most ovarian cysts are benign, meaning they are not cancerous, and many disappear on their own in a matter of weeks without treatment. While cysts may be found in ovarian cancer, ovarian cysts typically represent a harmless (benign) condition or a normal process. Ovarian cysts occur most often during a woman's childbearing years.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/23/2012
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