If you have persistent pelvic pain or discomfort, an ovarian cyst could be to blame. Ovarian cysts occasionally require treatment, so it's important to let your doctor know about your lower abdominal pain. Fortunately, treatment for ovarian cysts is often very effective and can help resolve your pain.

What Are Ovarian Cysts?

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs within or on the surface of an ovary. Many women develop ovarian cysts at some time during their lives. Most cysts are harmless and cause little or no discomfort.

Here are some terms that are often used when discussing ovarian cysts:

  • Ovaries: Women have two ovaries, located in the lower abdomen. The ovaries produce and release eggs.
  • Menstrual cycle: A recurring process in which a woman's body prepares for the possibility of pregnancy. It occurs about once a month during childbearing years.
  • Pelvic exam: An examination of a woman's reproductive organs, including the vagina and ovaries.

Stages and Types of Ovarian Cysts

There are two main types of ovarian cysts:

  • Functional ovarian cysts: These cysts develop as part of the menstrual cycle. They're usually harmless and don't cause any symptoms. Functional ovarian cysts are the most common type of ovarian cyst. They include follicular cysts and corpus luteum cysts.
  • Pathological ovarian cysts: These cysts occur due to abnormal cell growth and aren't related to the standard function of the menstrual cycle. They include dermoid cysts, cystadenomas, and endometriomas.

Symptoms and Causes

Most cysts are small and don't cause any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include the following:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Pain during bowel movements
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Heaviness or fullness in your abdomen
  • Frequent need to urinate

Serious symptoms of an ovarian cyst that require immediate medical attention include the following:

  • Severe or sharp pelvic pain
  • Faintness or dizziness
  • Fever
  • Rapid breathing

These symptoms can indicate a ruptured ovarian cyst, which can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Most cysts develop as a result of your menstrual cycle. In some cases, cysts are caused by medical conditions, such as endometriosis.

Prevention and Risks

You can't prevent ovarian cysts, but you can have regular pelvic exams to detect ovarian cysts early. You should also be alert to the symptoms of ovarian cysts and see your doctor should symptoms appear.

Several factors can increase your risk of ovarian cysts, including the following:

  • Being of childbearing age
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Being overweight
  • Having an intrauterine device (IUD), such as Mirena
  • Having a history of previous ovarian cysts
  • Having an underactive thyroid gland, or hypothyroidism
  • Taking the fertility drug clomiphene (Clomid or Serophene)

Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor may detect an ovarian cyst during a pelvic exam. He or she may then recommend further tests or procedures to confirm or rule out an ovarian cyst.

Doctors use these tests or procedures to diagnose an ovarian cyst:

  • Pregnancy test: A positive pregnancy test may suggest you have a corpus luteum cyst, which can develop when the follicle that releases an egg during your menstrual cycle reseals and fills with fluid. If you have a positive pregnancy test, your doctor may refer you for an ultrasound scan to rule out the possibility of pregnancy.
  • Pelvic ultrasound: A pelvic ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of your ovaries. Your doctor can look at the images to confirm or rule out an ovarian cyst.
  • Laparoscopy: A laparoscopy is a surgical procedure that allows your doctor to examine your ovaries using an instrument called a laparoscope. If your doctor finds a cyst, they may remove it during the procedure.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

If you have an ovarian cyst, your family doctor may prescribe medications that might help your ovarian cyst, or refer you to a gynecologist, a doctor who specializes in women's health. They can carry out tests and procedures to look at your ovarian cysts. A gynecologist can also prescribe medications that might help your ovarian cyst, or if necessary, refer you to a surgeon. Feel free to ask questions and request more information when talking to any healthcare professional. Remember that getting a clear understanding of your health is the reason you are meeting in the first place.

Most ovarian cysts disappear without treatment within a few weeks or months. However, some ovarian cysts — especially large ones — require treatment.

Your doctor may suggest:

  • Watchful waiting: You may need follow-up pelvic and/or ultrasound exams at periodic intervals to see if your cyst goes away on its own or changes in size.
  • Birth control pills: Your doctor may recommend birth control pills to reduce your chances of developing new ovarian cysts in future menstrual cycles.
  • Pain relievers: Your doctor may suggest nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, to help relieve your pelvic pain.
  • Surgery: You may need surgery to remove a cyst if your cyst is large, causes pain or other symptoms, or persists through two or more menstrual cycles.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Following a healthy lifestyle can help relieve the symptoms of ovarian cysts and may reduce your chances of developing new ovarian cysts. Follow these tips for a healthier lifestyle:

  • Exercise regularly: Exercise helps reduce pain and improves your overall health. Aim to get at least two and a half hours of gentle exercise, such as walking, each week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being a healthy weight helps reduce your chances of developing new ovarian cysts. Maintain a healthy weight by taking regular exercise and following a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Eating healthy can help you cope with your symptoms and maintain a healthy weight. Follow these tips for a healthier diet:

  • Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy foods.
  • Limit the sugary foods and drinks you consume.
  • Eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables every day.

Conclusion

Living with an ovarian cyst can be a challenge, as the cyst may cause symptoms that disrupt your day. Fortunately, most cysts disappear without treatment, and those that don't can often be treated successfully. If you suspect you may have an ovarian cyst, consult your family doctor. It's typical to feel anxious when talking about your symptoms, but your doctor is there to help you.