Cyst (Cysts)

Reviewed on 1/31/2022

Facts You Should Know About Cysts

A big ganglion cyst on a woman's wrist
Picture of a ganglion cyst on the wrist by iStock

What is the medical definition of Cyst?

A cyst is an abnormal, sac-like structure that can be found anywhere in the body. Cysts usually contain a gaseous, liquid, or semisolid substance and have an outer wall, known as the capsule. Cysts may be small and visible only under a microscope, or they may grow to a very large size and displace normal body structures.

What are the different types of cysts?

Cysts occur commonly in numerous tissues and organs and are often named according to their particular anatomic location (for example ovarian cysts, bladder cysts, breast cysts, liver cysts, kidney cysts, pancreatic cysts, vaginal cysts, skin cysts, thyroid cysts). Certain types of cysts also have special designations and nomenclature. Examples of these include:

  • Ganglion cyst: a cyst around a tendon, most commonly occurring at the wrist
  • Baker's cyst: a cyst containing joint fluid that is located in popliteal space behind the knee
  • Bartholin's cyst: cystic enlargement of small glands near the vaginal opening
  • Nabothian cyst: a mucus-filled cyst on the surface of the uterine cervix
  • Pilonidal cysts: cysts that arise in the soft tissue at the base of the tailbone (coccyx) of the lower back, just above the natal cleft (the cleavage between the buttocks)
  • Dermoid cyst: a type of benign tumor of the ovary that contains multiple cystic spaces and various tissue types

What Are Causes of Cysts?

Cysts are very common abnormalities that can occur in people of any age. There are literally hundreds of different types of cysts, and they may arise through a variety of mechanisms. Defects in embryonic development can result in cysts that are present from birth. Normal "wear and tear" or small blockages in the flow of body fluids can also result in cyst formation.

What Are Cyst Risk Factors?

Cysts occur in people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Because there are hundreds of different types of cysts, it is difficult to list specific cyst risk factors. Disease processes such as infections, tumors, chronic inflammatory conditions, and certain inherited diseases can all lead to the development of cysts.

What Are Symptoms and Signs of a Cyst?

  • Small cysts or cysts in internal structures of the body may not produce symptoms.
  • Cysts in the skin or in tissues just beneath the skin may be recognized as painless lumps or bumps.
  • Cysts which can be felt may be hard or soft.
  • Sometimes it is possible to notice an increase in size of a cyst while in other cases, the size will remain constant.
  • It is often not possible to distinguish a cyst from some other cause of tissue swelling simply by physical examination.
  • If cysts arise due to a serious infection, tumor, or chronic disease, the symptoms depend on the location, type, and extent of the disease.

When Should Someone Seek Medical Care for a Cyst?

If you're concerned about any abnormal, unexplained swelling or lump, talk to your doctor. He or she can recommend appropriate diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the cyst.

What Types of Doctors Treat Cysts?

Cysts may be treated by primary-care doctors, including general and family medicine physicians. Surgeons may treat cysts when drainage or surgical removal is necessary. Other types of cysts may be treated by different specialists depending on the location and cause of the cyst. These specialists can include obstetrician-gynecologists, hand surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, or others.

What Exams and Tests Do Health Care Professionals Use to Evaluate Cysts?

Sometimes imaging studies are used to assist in the diagnosis of cysts. In particular, cysts of internal organs such as the kidneys or liver may not be detected by the affected individual. These cysts often are first discovered by imaging studies (X-ray, ultrasound, computerized tomography or CT scan, and magnetic resonance imaging or MRI) sometimes performed for other reasons.

What Are Treatments for Cysts?

Treatment for cysts varies depending upon the size, location, and cause of the cyst.

  • Small cysts that do not produce symptoms may not require treatment of any kind.
  • Sometimes cysts are drained with a sterile procedure using a needle and syringe.
  • Surgical removal may be indicated for very large cysts that result in symptoms due to their large size.
  • Surgical treatment may be indicated for large cysts or when the possibility of cancer in a cyst must be ruled out.
  • If a cyst arises as part of a chronic medical condition (for example, in polycystic ovarian syndrome or fibrocystic breast disease), treatment is generally directed at the underlying medical condition.

Are There Cyst Home Remedies?

People should not attempt to drain or collapse a cyst themselves. Popping or compressing a cyst can be dangerous and should not be attempted. A health care professional can advise the person about the proper care and treatment, if necessary, for a cyst.

What Is the Medical Treatment for a Cyst?

When cysts accompany infections or chronic medical conditions, treatment is directed toward the underlying condition that caused the cyst formation.

When Is Surgery Necessary for Cyst Removal?

Cysts that are very large and result in symptoms due to their size may be surgically removed. Sometimes the fluid contained within a cyst can be drained, or aspirated, by inserting a needle or catheter into the cyst cavity, resulting in collapse of the cyst. Imaging such as ultrasound or CT scanning may be used for guidance in draining (aspirating) cyst contents.

If there is any suspicion that a cyst is cancerous, the cyst may be removed by surgery, or a biopsy is taken of the cyst wall (capsule) to rule out malignancy. Depending upon the size and location of the cyst, this may be performed in a doctor's office, outpatient surgery center, or hospital operating room. Laparoscopic surgery may be possible in many situations.

In certain cases, aspirated fluid from a cyst is examined under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present.

What Follow-up May Be Needed for Cysts?

After surgical treatment of a cyst, follow the health care professional's instructions regarding care of the surgical site and any follow-up visits.

Is It Possible to Prevent Cysts?

The development of most types of cysts generally cannot be prevented.

What Is the Prognosis for Cysts?

The prognosis of a cyst is dependent upon the cause of the cyst. Most small cysts are benign and have no long-term consequences. Simple cysts that arise due to wear and tear or obstruction to the flow of body fluids may recur, or new cysts may arise at other locations.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Ovarian cysts are a common form of cyst that forms on or in a woman's ovaries.

Ovarian Cysts

  • Ovarian cysts are fairly common. They are fluid-filled sacs that form in or on a woman's ovaries.
  • Symptoms of ovarian cysts depend to a large extent on the size of the cyst. Many ovarian cysts produce no symptoms. Large or ruptured ovarian cysts can cause symptoms including pain, pelvic pressure or discomfort.
  • Vaginal (pelvic) ultrasound can be used to reveal the presence of ovarian cysts.
  • Ovarian cysts can vary in size. Many are very small, while cysts associated with ovarian tumors may be 12 inches or more in diameter.
Reviewed on 1/31/2022
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