Ovarian cysts may sound scary, but thankfully, they're usually more like acne: annoying, but harmless for the most part. They're fluid or tissue-filled sacs that grow in or on the surface of your ovaries, and usually aren't a huge deal (and typically aren't even painful).
Taraneh Shirazian, MD, a gynecologist at New York University Langone, says that they're extremely common — most people with ovaries will get them at some point — and most of the time are benign.
"Ovarian cysts are extremely common, because the ovaries are active, so as they’re working and ovulating, cysts can form." she says. "There’s nothing specific that causes them, they're just a product of the ovaries being active organs."
Most cysts develop because you're menstruating, with the most common ones being the follicular cysts, functional cysts (which happen when your ovaries are functioning as they should) that grow when you ovulate, and that sometimes stay around on the ovaries after you ovulate. Dr. Shirazian says that the follicular cysts are the most common, and will usually go away on their own, typically within two or three menstrual cycles.
The corpus luteum cysts, another type of functional cysts, develop when the follicle releases an egg during your cycle, and again, are usually harmless and rarely cause pain.
In fact, Dr. Shirazian says most benign ovarian cysts rarely present physical symptoms, but less common ones like dermoid cysts (which form from embryonic cells) and endometriomas (that can develop if you have endometriosis) might be painful and may need to be removed if they don't go away on their own.
There’s nothing specific that causes them, they're just a product of the ovaries being active organs.
Taraneh Shirazian, MD
If a cyst increases in size, it might cause pelvic pain, bloating, and fullness or heaviness in your stomach, at which point you should see a doctor who can administer an ultrasound during a pelvic exam to judge whether or not the cyst needs to be removed.
Still, Dr. Shirazian says, ovarian cysts are usually harmless, especially for pre-menopausal women, and the rate of them actually being cancerous is less than 1% — even for persistent cysts that cause physical symptoms.
"In post-menopausal women, we worry more about the potential for malignancy and if there’s a growth on the ovary, often we would recommend removing it depending on what it looks like and on the size," she says. "The only groups that need to be routinely thinking about whether to get them checked out would be women who are post-menopausal."
If you have any bloating and cramping that you think might be related to a cyst, it's best to see a doctor, who'll do an ultrasound and tell you how concerned you should be. If a cyst ruptures (which doesn't happen frequently), that can present serious issues like severe pain — this is why it's important to get it checked out if you feel like something isn't right. But overall, most people with ovaries get ovarian cysts at some point, and they're usually not something you have to seriously worry about.