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What Are Ovarian Cysts?

Causes and Symptoms of Ovarian Cysts

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Updated April 09, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs, similar to blisters, that are common among women during their reproductive years. They form on the ovaries, the almond-sized organs on each side of the uterus. Most types of ovarian cysts are harmless and go away without any treatment.

What Causes Ovarian Cysts?

The normal function of the ovaries is to produce an egg each month. During the process of ovulation, a cyst-like structure called a follicle is formed inside the ovary. The mature follicle ruptures when an egg is released during ovulation. A corpus luteum forms from the empty follicle, and if pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum dissolves. Sometimes, however, this process does not conclude appropriately, causing the most common type of ovarian cyst -- functional ovarian cysts.

Abnormal ovarian cysts, such as polycystic ovarian disease, may occur as the result of an imbalance of female hormones (estrogen and progesterone).

Types of Ovarian Cysts

  • Functional Cysts
    These normal cysts will often shrink and disappear within two or three menstrual cycles. Because this type of cyst is formed during ovulation, it rarely occurs in menopausal women because eggs are no longer being produced.
  • Dermoid Cysts
    These are ovarian cysts that are filled with various types of tissues, including hair and skin.
  • Endometrioma Cysts
    These cysts are also known as the "chocolate cysts" of endometriosis, and they form when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus attaches to the ovaries.
  • Cystadenoma Cysts
    These are ovarian cysts that develop from cells on the outer surface of the ovaries.
  • Polycystic Ovarian Disease
    This disease refers to cysts that form from a buildup of follicles. These cysts cause the ovaries to enlarge and create a thick outer covering, which may prevent ovulation from occurring, and are often the cause of fertility problems.

What are the Symptoms of Ovarian Cysts?

Ovarian cysts often cause no symptoms; however, when symptoms are present, ovarian cysts may cause a dull ache or a sense of fullness or pressure in the abdomen. Pain during intercourse and at other times can also indicate the presence of ovarian cysts.

Pain or pressure is caused by a number of factors, such as size, bleeding or bursting of a cyst, which irritates the abdominal tissues. Pain can also be caused when a cyst is twisted (called torsion), which can block the flow of blood to the cyst.

Other possible symptoms of ovarian cysts include delayed, irregular, or unusually painful periods. If you experience any of these symptoms, notify your doctor as soon as possible.

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