Ovarian cysts often develop naturally if you have monthly periods.
They can also affect people who have been through the menopause.
Types of ovarian cyst
There are many different types of ovarian cyst, which can be categorised as either:
- functional cysts
- pathological cysts
Functional ovarian cysts are linked to the menstrual cycle. They happen if you have not been through the menopause, and they are very common.
Each month, ovaries release an egg, which travels down the fallopian tubes where it can be fertilised by sperm.
Each egg forms inside the ovary in a structure known as a follicle. The follicle contains fluid that protects the egg as it grows, and it bursts when the egg is released.
But sometimes a follicle does not release an egg, or does not discharge its fluid and shrink after the egg is released. If this happens, the follicle can swell and become a cyst.
Functional cysts are non-cancerous (benign) and are usually harmless, although they can sometimes cause symptoms such as pelvic pain.
Most will disappear in a few months without needing any treatment.
Pathological cysts are caused by abnormal cell growth and are not related to the menstrual cycle. They can develop before and after the menopause.
Pathological cysts develop from either the cells used to create eggs or the cells that cover the outer part of the ovary.
They can sometimes burst or grow very large and block the blood supply to the ovaries.
Pathological cysts are usually non-cancerous, but a small number are cancerous (malignant) and often surgically removed.
Conditions that cause ovarian cysts
In some cases, ovarian cysts are caused by an underlying condition, such as endometriosis.
Endometriosis occurs when pieces of the tissue that line the womb (endometrium) are found outside the womb in the fallopian tubes, ovaries, bladder, bowel, vagina or rectum. Blood-filled cysts can sometimes form in this tissue.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that causes lots of small, harmless cysts to develop on your ovaries.
The cysts are small egg follicles that do not grow to ovulation and are caused by altered hormone levels.
Page last reviewed: 10 December 2019
Next review due: 10 December 2022